By: Addison Wylie
Silent House is the latest Horror movie helmed by Chris Kentis and the first directorial effort from screenwriter Laura Lau, who has previously worked with Kentis on two prior films.
One of those collaborations was the shoestring budget creep-fest Open Water; a film that divided audiences drastically but left everyone wondering what they would do if they were isolated in shark infested waters. Silent House‘s reception, I imagine, is going to take a similar path.
In Silent House, Sarah (played by Elizabeth Olson) is working with her Father (played by Adam Trese) and her Uncle (played by Eric Sheffer Stevens) in order to refurbish an old house to sell. The exchanges between Sarah and her family are what help us warm up to these characters. These moments also make our gears turn as we try to keep one step ahead of the movie and try to guess its twists and turns. An awkward interaction between Sarah and her Uncle is certainly a time where we think we know where the film is headed. But, do we really?
Lau has taken the role of screenwriter, adapting a film by Gustavo Hernández. Lau has created dialogue that never feels forced or gimmicky; at least not until the final wrap-up.
She does a good job answering questions and covering up traces of plot holes instantaneously. Within the first few minutes, movie goers find out why the house is pitch black, why the phones are out, and so on. Again, these moments don’t feel like we’re being spoon-fed, but they allow us to put the puzzle together with the clues we are given. I just wish this kind of smart and subtle writing had stayed with the film until the bitter end.
As people start disappearing and Sarah soon finds out a stranger is in the house and wanting to find her, the film ends up feeling more like a thriller than a horror. However, this is fine because of how well the game of cat-and-mouse builds tension and makes us concerned about Sarah’s wellbeing. Lau has set up plenty of nail-biting chases that are very effective.
The screenplay, however, is where the film’s flaws lie.
When the ending arrives and explanations unfold, Lau is confused with what her film should be. It’s almost as if she realized the film became a thriller and decided to take her film down another genre rabbit hole. The problem is, since we’ve been sucked into Silent House, we have a hard time breaking away from its thriller premise and we have an even harder time following the film as something more psychological. The ending is truly something audiences won’t expect but that doesn’t mean it fits properly with the rest of the story. Now, if Hernández’s version had this ending, that’s fine but in order for Lau to have pulled it off, she would’ve had to establish more of the psychological side of the story during the first third. By tacking on to the last, we feel like Lau, in a last minute frazzle, is throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Having the film all take place during one continuous take, the filmmaking approach is certainly intriguing. For some, it may run thin as we watch our lead Sarah run in and out of rooms in an empty house.
The audience will find themselves asking what they would do in Sarah’s shoes. As we watch Sarah try to unlock doors with incorrect keys, it gets to a point where we want to yell at Olson for not breaking a window and running to the hills.
Silent House has a conclusion that makes you think the payoff was either cool or pathetic. In my opinion, I’m still on the fence.
Cinematographer Igor Martinovic has taken on a daunting mission. From the first frame to the very last chilling moment, Martinovic records every action in one take quite successfully with very few flaws. It’s a position that asks him to follow very precise directions from Kentis and Lau, as well as improvise occasionally. The film’s lighting seems natural for the most part which means a lot of shadows are apparent. But, because of the nature of how Silent House is shot and how the film is supposed to take on a fly-on-the-wall approach, the use of this type of lighting is understandable and we can overlook these instances of darkness.
Martinovic stays with Olson at all times and I give praise to our damsel in distress for staying in character and not breaking the fourth wall at any point during the movie. The camera could be across the room or directly in front of her face but, Olson never lets up. She recognizes how important her focus is to each scene. It’s a performance that demands Olson to go through various emotions on camera and memorize 88 minutes worth of directions and staging and she does this perfectly. The same thing can be said for Martinovic’s camera work. He memorizes multiple angles and movements and excels with flying colours.
With all the moments of black, one can see how the filmmakers could cheat and edit in alternate takes without being noticed. However, these are directors who threw actors into the middle of an ocean with live sharks swimming around them in order to create genuine terror and vulnerability. If they can go that far to obtain authenticity, I can’t see them wanting to chicken out on this.
Despite the film trying to needlessly wear too many genre hats during its finale, I still think Silent House is worth checking out because it did have me gripped until the final moments. The scares are never gratuitous but when they do appear, we appreciate the low-key creepiness. We may not be terrified, but, we’re always uneasy. Also, the camera work is admirable as well as the performances. This is a type of filmmaking that is extremely rare. Many filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch it with a 10 foot pole. That said, I commend Kentis and Lau (and even Olson) for having enough gusto and confidence to tackle this shooting technique and flourish. I look forward to another restrained film directed by this duo but, because of the gap between this one and 2003’s Open Water, I understand that I may be waiting awhile.