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Silent House (2011)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Studio Canal UK
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Chris Kentis
Laura Lau
Gustavo Hernández
Elizabeth Olsen
Adam Trese
Eric Sheffer Stevens
Julia Taylor Ross
Bottom Line: 
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On the face of it, this remake of the Uruguayan film “La casa muda” is the most perplexing and unnecessary Hollywood English language makeover of a foreign film for people who don’t like subtitles yet, since the original contained barely any dialogue in the first place. The 2010 film (which predictably purported to be founded on some real-life events, just to cement the intended air of authenticity surrounding it) gained most of its most prominent notices on the back of the technical achievement suggested by its PR claim that it was apparently shot in one continuous take with no edits, forcing the viewer to undergo the same experience as the story’s protagonist in real time -- a device which gives the film many of the same qualities usually encountered in the found footage sub-genre, but without being bound by its limitations: the camera drifts across a field and into an old abandoned house, then in and out of dimly lit rooms, cramped cellars and cluttered attics for the rest of the movie, continuously tracking the movements of the central character and allowing the viewer to experience the sensation of making the same discoveries, and jumping at the same shadows and sudden movements, as she does. The original film is something of a ghost train experience then, but very effectively done and with a great deal of moody charm and eerie atmospherics to accentuate the effect of what turns out to be an unusual and disturbing story. The device also turns out not to be just another gimmick, since it also works on a more profound level that enhances the confusion between what counts as an internal psychological perception and the experience of an external haunting, blurring the difference between them.

As it turned out (and as should have been obvious from the number of fades to black discernible throughout the movie), like Hitchcock’s film “Rope” before it, there are actually cuts made at certain points in the narrative, though the Uruguayan film did still achieve its goal of giving the viewer a real time spook experience. I watched Gustavo Hernández’s original in preparation for reviewing this U.S. version by “Open Water” directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (with a screenplay overhaul by Lau) which sees Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) diligently taking over the title role -- and one of the most immediately noticeable things about the Americans’ handling of the device is the even-more overt emphasis being placed on the ‘wow factor’ that pertains to the technical achievement and mind boggling feat of co-ordination that must have been necessary in order to make the concept work at all. This time the film starts with a sweeping overhead crane shot that glides down to ground level as Olsen clambers up an embankment near a rocky lakeside shore, which then tracks her into the nearby house in one smooth unbroken shot that, this time out, makes sure to avoid the rather obvious fade to black that indicated a cut in the original, and thus generates an obviously sought after ‘how did they do that moment’.

The commentary track on the UK DVD and Blu-ray release is a catalogue of explanations by the two directors for how such complex shots were achieved and how many times the crew had to start the whole thing all over again because a cue was missed or a mistake was made, etc., though, once again, while this film does replicate the experience of its events occurring in real time, there were still at least a dozen cuts made during the course of its run time, it’s just that they’re  disguised much more cunningly this time -- though often the most challenging technical feats are the ones you don’t even notice. All this is not ultimately of that much importance, though; the end effect is what matters, and, as was true of the original film, this version creates the experience that was intended for the viewer -- even if it is an even more stunningly complex (some might say over-egged) iteration of it.  

What I was a little more dubious about was Lau’s insistence in her screenplay re-write on altering the back story which gets revealed in incremental steps throughout both movies, and then tidying up certain plot points with layerings of overt symbolism and archetypical imagery -- all of which has the effect of clarifying how you come to interpret the film on subsequent viewings. For all the cleverly inventive and experimental ways the screenplay finds to tell a story that’s rooted in events in the past, while labouring under the constraints of a format which is fixed in the immediacy of what’s happening in the ‘here and now’, there is actually a pretty traditional three act structure here --with constant hints and suggestions in the dialogue at the start of the film that reveal their undercurrents only later in the movie, so that we can see how every plot beat and development has been accounted for and justified come the conclusion. This, to me, undermines the ambiguity and the sense of disorientation which remained with the Hernández version even at the end of the movie, and which willingly left certain aspects of the events we’d experienced alongside the heroine open to the viewer’s interpretation. This all comes down to taste, I suppose: there were plenty of viewers of the original film who could be unearthed complaining that it ‘didn’t make sense’ -- whereas the questions it raised about the veracity of our perception of the film’s occurrences and the tricks being played with POV, were the very things I enjoyed most about it . “Silent House” the re-make though, has clearly decided on the angle it’s going to take and then sticks with it religiously: a decision which effectively removes the mystery from the scenario at a stroke, and makes it a great deal less interesting and original than its predecessor.

The set-up in this version is of course essentially the same as the original’s: here, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) has returned with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) to the family’s old summerhouse – an run-down three storey Victorian-era building which was once used for vacations in Sarah’s childhood, but which now needs cleaning up in preparation for being sold. Sarah and her dad are going to stay overnight in order to get the job finished. A young woman called Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) comes by in the afternoon, who remembers playing with Sarah when she used to come and stay here as a child; but Sarah quite plainly has no idea who she is, despite attempting to be polite about it. Later, as Sarah and her father are left to start on clearing out the junk from the neglected rooms by the light of gas lamps as the day draws to evening and night sets in, Sarah begins to hear strange noises emanating from upstairs, as though there is someone else in the house with them. Her father disappears for some time while investigating the disturbances; and then, not only does Sarah discover him badly beaten in one of the upstairs rooms, but a masked, stalking man is also glimpsed, and Sarah finds all of the house’s exits now unaccountably impossible to access. As she attempts to escape, strange ghostly visions of a small child also begin to manifest themselves and the house gradually reveals the secret history of a past that still lives buried in its walls.

Despite the misgivings I’ve already raised concerning how this remake handles the material, there is one addition to it that I really do have to single out for praise, and that is the performance of Elizabeth Olsen, who is tasked with the unique and difficult problem (as was Florencia Colucci in the original) of portraying her character’s steadily mounting fear and terror while maintaining the film’s illusion of real time and carrying out the necessary choreographed ballet of timed cues and careful blocking learned from memory that the increasingly complex co-ordination of filmed events requires (since it takes place just as evening is turning to night, the action had to be timed with the setting of the sun as well!). Considering very long sections of the film had to be redone over and over again each time something went wrong, the fact that Olsen manages to maintain focus from beginning to end is as impressive a feat of performance as any of the technical tricks pulled off by cameraman and DP Igor Martinovic. The film certainly holds the interest for most of its 88 minute running time (which is actually a much longer run time than the original) but the climax becomes way too literal and this version actually changes the meaning of events by eliminating one very important element of the original’s back story and concentrating on the house’s role as an archetypal symbol in a very over-cooked and heavy-handed way. This is what, for me, makes it very much less interesting, although it’s a perfectly respectable angle to take.

This UK Blu-ray version from Studio Canal comes with a perfectly sound HD transfer and effective 5.1 DTS HD audio track (plus a stereo audio version). The commentary by co-directors Kentis and Lau is an engrossing listen as they run through the technical challenges each section of the film held for them, and there’s also a short film (barely a minute in length in fact) made as part of the Shooting People completion, which manages to adapt the smartphone to the horror genre in an original way, with reference to J-Horror.

“Silent House” is watchable enough and a well-made piece of work, but though technically even more accomplished than the Uruguayan film it riffs on, its best moments are still those taken from the original and it ends up being far less memorable because of the decision to spell things out just a little too definitively than was really necessary at the climax. Those who like their horror movies to make perfect sense will probably prefer this version though.

Be sure to check out Black Gloves blog; Nothing but the Night

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