Friday, March 9, 2012

A Laughable Reveal: Silent House

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

There are two gimmicks that propel the thriller Silent House. One is that the movie appears to be shot in one long take. (It's not). The other is that the story takes place in real time. (It does; kind of). These two gimmicks may convince you, for a while, that you're watching an exciting new take on the spooky house horror film. (You're not).

Gimmicks are nothing new to directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, whose 2003 killer shark flick Open Water succeeded largely because the use of an actual open water setting filled with real sharks elicited some visceral chills. Where it didn't succeed as well was in the performances and dialogue, a problem that ultimately sinks Silent House.

Elizabeth Olsen, last seen in the acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene, stars as Sarah, a post-high-school young woman who is helping her father, John, (Adam Trese), and uncle Peter, (Eric Sheffer Stevens), fix up the family's lakeside summer home after it's been sitting abandoned for a a few years. Squatters and vandals have broken all the windows, which are now covered up with plywood, and rats have eaten through the house's wiring, necessitating the use of electric lanterns to light one's way around the perpetually dark place.

Spooky surroundings? Set.

After a visit from a childhood friend she can't quite remember, (Julia Taylor Ross), Sarah finds herself alone in the house with her father, cleaning things out, when dad suddenly disappears after a very loud and mysterious crash shakes the house. Before long, Sarah is convinced they are not alone in there, and something bad has happened to her father. Problem is, she's locked in, and must find a way out.

The remainder of the movie consists of Sarah creeping through the house, often in almost complete darkness, being stalked by an unknown person or presence. Like many of the "verite" horror movies (Paranormal Activity, et al), most of the scares come from sudden loud noises or the surprising appearance of something or someone in the corner. Silent House has those types of scares down pat, and in that way, it's effective.

The illusion of a single take movie, and its resulting real time plot, means there's a lot of shaky, handheld camera work. Olsen is in almost every shot of the movie, and when the camera zooms in close on her absolutely terrified silent screams, its unsettling. But at other times, the image is so shaky and blurry the only think it elicits is motion sickness.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the ultimate reveal about just what that house's big bad is, the movie falters, and becomes almost laughable. I went into it knowing nothing aside from its gimmicks, and the presence of the Other Olsen sister, and I was kind of surprised, in reading about it after the fact, by how much the directors and star are giving away about the plot in interviews.

Perhaps they understand that the film's resolution is actually pretty lame, and by talking about it, audiences will go in expecting it, and not be disappointed?

The thing is, there are some really icky and sensitive topics that come up in the plot, and it seems like a lot to throw at an audience that is expecting some cheap thrills. And perhaps if the actors involved were better, and didn't deliver lines like they were the weekly villain on an episode of "Law & Order," the shock factor in the ending wouldn't come off as borderline tasteless.

But the actor who plays Sarah's father is, frankly, terrible, (which might explain why he's also a real estate agent), and the actor who plays her uncle isn't much better, and it doesn't help that the dialogue they often have to deliver is hackneyed and cringe-inducing.

Ultimately, this means Elizabeth Olsen has to carry the movie entirely on her shoulders, and as good as she is, (and she is), she just can't silence the hamminess around her.

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