thu 20/02/2020

Silent House | reviews, news & interviews

Silent House

Silent House

Low-budget spookathon chills the spine but then drops the ball

Elizabeth Olsen as Sarah, finding that this particular house is not a home

Considerable quantities of bile have been hosed over Silent House by American critics, who have found its premise flimsy and its execution dismally predictable. It was made by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who were also responsible for 2003's low-budget hit Open Water. That was the one where a couple of objectionable yuppies were left behind by their dive-boat and we bobbed about in the ocean with them as they succumbed to terror, hypothermia and hungry sharks. Its seasick, hand-held feel lent it an unsettling edge, but ultimately it felt like a single clever idea stretched way too thin.

Similar criticism could be levelled at Silent House, in which Kentis and Lau have likewise built a horror movie (based on a Uruguayan original) by drawing up a set of technical restrictions and then showing how ingeniously they can overcome them. The budget is low, to start with. It was just enough to cover a handful of actors and a single set, to wit: one house (though it isn't all that silent, being beset with all manner of thumps, moans, groans and creaks). It's a decrepit lakeside holiday home, which is being cleared out in preparation for sale by Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), her father John (Adam Trese) and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens).

With all the windows boarded up, the doors padlocked to keep out squatters and the electricity turned off, the house is dark and prison-like even in daytime, and becomes a suffocating black hole in which Sarah is forced to confront dimly-seen adversaries amid steadily mounting hysteria. The film-makers would like to persuade us that the piece was shot in real time in a single 88-minute take, with the camera sticking at Sarah's side as she tries to make sense of her predicament, but the illusion doesn't work since much craft has demonstrably been applied to the editing (Olsen in peril, pictured above and below).

Nonetheless, for two-thirds of its length the film successfully ratchets up the chills, even if the girl-trapped-in-spooky-old-house motif is about as original as daytime repeats of Murder, She Wrote. Shooting with brutally shortened depth of field has effectively intensified the sense of claustrophobia, with backgrounds reduced to a blur and characters' faces moving in and out of focus as they make the smallest of movements.

The smartest choice Kentis and Lau made was to cast Olsen in the lead - not that she has much competition, since Trese and Stevens could have been replaced by a couple of deckchairs and not a lot would have been lost - since she imbues Sarah with a haunting sense of bemusement and uncertainty, as if she were a sleepwalker finding herself in a familiar place which she suddenly can't understand any more. This is underscored early in the piece by the appearance at the front door of Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), apparently a girl who lives nearby and who used to play with Sarah when they were children. Sarah tries to convince herself that she remembers Sophia, but her unease is palpable.

Other clues have been laid whose significance only solidifies in hindsight, such as uncle Peter's ever-so-slightly inappropriate comment that he can't believe how grown up Sarah has become (does he mean her exaggerated cleavage?), or the old photographs left lying around the house, or Sarah's glimpse of a mysterious young girl in the garden. Tension is also maintained by deliberate misdirection, so we're left puzzling over whether the mysterious thumps and footsteps in the empty house are supernatural, extra-terrestrial or psychological. Are we catching echoes of The Others, or being teased by Shyamalan's Signs?

There are several arrestingly knuckle-gnawing moments, especially the panicky sequence where Sarah is trapped in a pitch-black room and can only see in the intermittent flashes from a Polaroid camera, one of which illuminates something ghastly hurtling towards her. Sounds of a bottle rolling across the floorboards or billiard balls clacking together become harbingers of unknown terrors.

A shame, then, that having built up a hair-raising head of steam, Kentis and Lau wasted it by glueing a dogmatic lump of exposition on the end which explains everything in pedantic detail. This is doubly crass, since it's jarringly at odds with the previous ambiguity and disorientation, while also leaving you picking over the plot-holes where the preceding action doesn't accord with the supplied solution. But for Elizabeth Olsen at least, the only way is up.

Watch the trailer to Silent House

 

Sounds of a bottle rolling across the floorboards or billiard balls clacking together become harbingers of unknown terrors

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters