Oh, Silent House. How you captured my imagination before I actually saw you! Starring Sundance sensation Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Liberal Arts) and featuring an interesting gimmick – like Hitchcock’s Rope, you are intended to play out in one long continuous shot – how could I NOT like you? Oh, that’s right. Because as you reveal your twists and turns, your conceit makes less and less sense. Sure, you look good on paper, but ultimately you leave us with a shell of a movie, nothing more than a series of half-concocted ideas fleshed out in the cheapest possible way to manufacture jump scares.
Like many horror films that I’ve seen, Silent House plays the expectation game with its audience. It capitalizes on our anticipation and fear of the unknown to generate scares, sliding its unblinking camera dramatically around every corner as Elizabeth Olsen’s character, Sarah, slowly explores her family’s abandoned old house. What was that noise? Was it a ghost? A human intruder? Something supernatural? There’s also a mention of mold growing in the house, and the possibility of it causing hallucinations. The film doesn’t show you much of anything for the first hour – just a quick glimpse of an arm here and a slamming door there, followed by Olsen screaming and the camera chasing after her as she makes her way through the various rooms. It’s annoying, especially when not a lot happens in the first hour. People might say the same about Paranormal Activity 2, but that film succeeded in building suspense in a way that Silent House never achieves. The difference? PA2 shows you what you should be scared of, and this movie just frustratingly hints at things without fully revealing them until the final act.
And that final act is a disaster. I’m going to spoil the entire movie for you during the rest of this review. It’s something I actively avoid doing, but it’s difficult to explore the extent to which Silent House fails without revealing key plot information along the way. Keep that in mind if you choose to read further.
Early in the film, Sarah and her dad are hanging out in the house, and her dad goes into another room. Sarah hears a bang, and goes searching for her father, only to find him a few minutes later with a massive head wound. She eventually escapes outside, only to encounter her uncle – a character who, to be fair, has been previously established, and he takes her back inside the house to retrieve her father. Sarah sees all kinds of strange figures lurking around the house, freaking out at the sight of each one. Silent House does something unexpected here: it alludes to the fact that the cryptic people wandering the house are involved in pedophilia. While hiding under various beds and tables, Sarah sees young girls who are also hiding from older men who take them upstairs and take Polaroids of them on a pool table. This gives the film’s title a totally different meaning, reframes our perceptions of the events we’ve seen thus far, and makes the movie horrifying in a totally different way.
But directing duo Chris Kentis and Laura Lau aren’t content to leave it at that. They take us all the way until the climax of the movie before revealing the truth behind it all: not only have all of the people Sarah has seen mysteriously wandering through the house been imaginary, but some of them have been memories…of herself. Her father was actually the one involved in the despicable deeds, and the little girl she’s been seeing creeping around was her as a child. It’s a shocking revelation that, again, makes us reframe what we’ve previously seen, a sinister chill echoing through the movie as we remember her dad’s earlier words: “If everyone did what I say, we wouldn’t have a problem.”
But when you actually think about what we’ve seen thus far, you realize this makes no sense in the slightest. The all-seeing camera stays with Sarah for essentially the entire movie, a stylistic choice clearly made to bring us into her world and show us her point of view. Not only is it a giant cheat to have Sarah be the one behind the attack on her father, it isn’t physically possible for her to be in two places at once (or more, as the film sometimes implies). I understand the idea of an unreliable narrator – it’s clearly something the filmmakers were shooting for here – but when the camera blatantly shows you one thing and then says, “HA! Just kidding!” at the end? A movie has to earn a certain amount of respect from its audience to able to pull that off. Silent House doesn’t earn anything. It seems more interested in dropping twist after twist in the final fifteen minutes than respecting what those twists actually mean in the context of what we’ve just spent valuable time watching.
Listen, even if the movie had some great scares and was genuinely spooky, I could forgive the cop-out ending and recommend the film for the atmosphere and the acting. But it’s honest-to-God boring for most of its runtime, concerned more with cool camera tricks and natural light sources than crafting a solid narrative. And I admittedly don’t know much about horror movies, but that seems pretty unforgivable to me.
It’s fitting that the marketing team for Silent House has chose the Twitter hashtag #whyisthishappeningtome for tweets associated with the movie, because that was exactly what I was thinking as I sat there watching it. Until next time…