The horror genre has always been one that’s survived on a meager budget and since the scorching success of Paranormal Activity there seems to be an ever multiplying number of lo-fi attempts to shock audiences and, most importantly, take their money. The latest addition to this pile is Silent House, an American remake (obviously) of the Spanish film The Silent House, which sees a traumatic evening of Sarah’s (Elizabeth Olsen) life played out in real time. It uses the tried and tested 88 minute formula (the length of a standard DV tape) to daringly capture the events in, what seems like, one continuous take.
It’s certainly a bold move but all it does is hinder the experience for a number of reasons. What the film is attempting to do is to place us the audience in the scene with Sarah so as to make us feel the optimum amount of empathy and attachment. But instead of being the visceral, immersive experience it could have been, all this technique does is make the events feel like an ordeal. There’s only a certain amount that a single take can accomplish and at times it can be effective, thus demonstrated by the likes of Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia). Here it lends the film an on-rails quality, sharing more aesthetic similarities with a cheap fairground ride than a raw, intense horror. This restricting technique may have been justifiable had the content contained any shred of excitement or originality, but instead the film feels like a sluggish, unwanted trip down memory lane.
Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau appear to be going for the gritty home movie approach (hence the 88 minute run time) but it wants to have it all so it often stumbles clumsily into B-movie slasher territory and occasionally dips its toes in the surreal. It’s a horrible car-crash of styles that culminates in a pile-up of groan-worthy cliches, each ticked off in a blase fashion. We’re presented with the works: loud bumps, red herrings, lurking shadows. It even has the nerve to test our patience with young girls standing not-so-creepily in badly lit corridors.
Like the bulk of low-budget horror films the overblown sound design does most of the legwork and every build-up is topped off with an earth shattering thud or clatter. You can almost hear the smug laughs of the film’s creators at the fact that they managed to make you jump, but that’s perhaps the biggest school-boy error that’s committed here. Kentis and Lau seem to be under the naive impression that making the audience jump is a valid scare tactic. If a human being is sitting in silence and all of a sudden a deafening noise is blasted into their fragile ears of course they’re going to be shocked, but the same thing would happen if a mischievous child crept up on his parents with a klaxon. It’s a very immature device and it’s one that’s put to use far too regularly. In fact, here it’s used so frequently that the audience eventually starts to pre-empt them and when they inevitably come around they don’t even warrant a flinch.
Poorly made horror films never know how to end and Silent House is no exception. As its last few minutes tick away it hurls vague meaning at the viewer, crossing its money-grabbing fingers that you’ll forget the gaping plot holes because you’ve suddenly been confronted with a twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan wince. It’s a textbook example of poor writing and with the scare count so unbearably low there’s no screen for the sloppy storytelling to hide behind.
Olsen’s performance is probably the film’s one and only redeeming feature and she does a respectable job with the wafer thin material. She’s an actress with a natural talent for portraying believable characters and the captivating Martha Marcy May Marlene is proof of this. Here she accurately plays the archetypal cowardly teen who needs tough men to check that everything is safe while she cowers in a corner. We spend a lot of the 88 tedious minutes under tables with Sarah as she waits in plain sight for danger to come and get her and it’s about as exhilarating as watching fake blood dry.
As an end result Silent House at least deserves kudos for trying to go through the motions in a brave way but ultimately it’s anchored by its myriad flaws. It’s a horror movie devoid of horror, in fact the only thing remotely scary about it is that people will see it and the genre will continue to live on such a well worn shoestring.