You can hear yourself think in ‘Silent House’
In “Silent House,’’ Elizabeth Olsen does a lot of hiding under tables and shivering in corners. She plays a woman named Sarah, and there’s not much more to her than that, even once it’s revealed that there is. Sarah’s father (Adam Trese) and her uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are preparing to sell their family’s enormous summer home. It’s full of boxes, bags, rolled up carpets, and something or someone chasing her in the dark from room to room but teasingly, so that what should last 15 minutes can be stretched to 88.
Every time who/whatever it is closes in, Olsen verges on hysterics. You watch her trembling in tears, one hand over her mouth (which, otherwise, is severely agape) and wonder what else is going on? This is acting that seems more freaked out, more traumatized than it ought to for a movie about an unwanted houseguest.
“Silent House’’ is up to something. The filmmakers, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, must have seen plenty of horror movies worth discussing in a women’s studies class. This is the first I can recall that appears to be the direct product of a course-long assignment. (The film is actually a remake of a moderately less creepy 2010 movie from Uruguay. Lau wrote the new film’s script.)
Most of what’s illogical about this American version as a conventional genre exercise (Sarah, where’s your smartphone? Sarah, honey, don’t go in the basement. Sarah, don’t re-enter the house.) takes on a completely different meaning as a horror film that’s ultimately about Something Else. Of course, one of the pleasures of even the worst horror and slasher movies - ones whose casts are hacked down to a so-called Last Girl - is that there’s often a moral subtext. “Silent House’’ is an experiment in that subtext, and it tends to feel deadeningly cerebral.
Kentis and Lau don’t trust us with their experiment. Olsen’s chills and hyperventilating aren’t the only clues. The actors, including Julia Taylor Ross, who plays a neighbor, have been instructed to leer at and flirt with Olsen, enough so that when Trese does it, you find yourself asking him, “You do know you’re playing her father?’’ He knows. Most of “Silent House’’ feels intentional that way. It’s the equivalent of adding a note that says, “Remember when the father looked at Sarah adoringly as he led her up the stairs? We totally meant that! And you know how women in horror movies always wear suggestive tank tops? Well, we want you to look down Sarah’s shirt, and we hope you’re ashamed of yourself.’’
All that intention robs the film of surprise or naturalness. The house itself is used as a cost savings. It looks pre-abandoned. But the lack of frills does permit the cinematographer Igor Martinovic, who shot the film using a digital camera, to spotlight his cleverness. He plays with light and its absence. Vandals have broken all the windows, which have been boarded up. There’s no electricity, meaning the characters carry lanterns around the house. Their light is often the only light.
The camera works as an extension of Sarah’s state of mind, which is to say that its images are manic and, once, as Sarah races through a field, handsomely abstract. When she’s on the floor, so is the camera. When she bends to pick up a lantern, it bends down, too. The camera sprints and stalks and flies and freaks out. Martinovic might be too brilliant. His work makes the camera so human that in watching her struggle and suffer and flip out, it isn’t merely artistic. It’s inhumane.