Left in the Dark
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, U.S., Open Road Films
Swooping into theaters if only to reaffirm that technical audacity can overcome neither soullessness nor a lack of central logic, Silent House is the latest horror-movie-as-filmmakers’-challenge from Chris Kentis and Laura Lau. Those names might be unfamiliar to many, even to those who may have curiously wandered into their infamous 2004 indie sensation, Open Water: the one with the squabbling couple stuck floating and forgotten in the middle of the big blue while real (but, really, benign) sharks nibbled at their toes. Though that early shot-on-video breakthrough—made back when digital movies, projected in multiplexes on film, looked like they had just come from a bacterial root-beer bath—was forgettable, the response of the crowd I saw it with was anything but: after the sad death of the last remaining character, the screen darkened, the credits came up, prompting a dissatisfied customer to yell, “Fuck you, Chris Kentis!” and then promptly throw a not-completely-empty cup of soda over four rows of seats, directly at the screen.
This story is not related so as to prove the rightness of this viewer (who’s to say this angry young man wouldn’t do the same at Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives?), but rather to illustrate that deflating feeling that can come only at the end of a horror movie that you feel has taken you for a ride. The gap between technical and narrative rigor is rarely more apparent than in a horror film, which seeks to pare things down to their generic essentials but also often gets mired in the why and how of silly plot devices. Recently, the slickly low-fi horror director Ti West has proven in The House of the Devil and this year’s The Innkeepers that all you need for an effective scare machine is a girl and a creaky house (and maybe a flashlight), and even despite mild climactic let-downs, has allowed his films to play out as elegantly as possible. West knows his way around darkness, even if his leading ladies don’t.
Kentis and Lau could learn something from West. In Silent House, their new remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film of the same name, not only do they not stick the landing, they don’t make getting there all that much fun. It’s only fair to note, though, that unlike in West’s films, fun isn’t the name of the game here—there’s an underlying sleaziness (cemented at its boneheaded conclusion) that drains the enjoyment out of the thing. As their leading lady and main prey, Elizabeth Olsen is allowed none of the buoyancy of character or spontaneity affectionately afforded Devil’s Jocelin Donahue or Innkeepers’ Sara Paxton. As proven in Martha Marcy May Marlene, the camera eats Olsen up; the directors take nasty advantage of this fact. Here, Olsen is pinned under glass, a fetish object cruelly unable to escape a closely tracking camera that picks up every tear, drool, and drizzle of snot that seeps out of her as she’s put through the paces over the course of eighty-five minutes. Intended as grueling, that near hour-and-a-half of screen time is simply drab.
More important to note is that those eighty-five minutes are, as the ad campaign touts, “in real time,” and allegedly in one take, as in the original version. Aside from the fact that so much of the film is in the dark that it’s impossible to see if there are actual cuts made (a severe conceptual blow to a film with such a gee-whiz look-at-me nature), the film’s main hook is also complicated by the fact that the filmmakers went back and reshot the last fifteen minutes following its premiere at Sundance. So whatever interest there is in Silent House lies in its series of extended takes that follow Olsen’s terrified Sarah throughout the boarded-up summer house, an electricity-free, cell-phone-bereft place of pitch-black dark (even during the day, since the windows are all covered) and swarming with a host of undefined but clearly very bad memories. There’s a stranger in the Amityville Horror–like abode, and after Sarah finds her father on the floor, seemingly dead, and the front door to the house locked from the inside, with the keys missing, she spends the rest of the movie trying to evade the intruder, the camera constantly on her shoulder as she scrambles from attic to basement, and even outside and back again.
Aside from a striking opening image (beginning as a high overhead shot of Sarah pensive on a large white rock, surrounded by gray lapping water, and slowly gliding down to follow her as she ambles across the grass to the nearby house’s driveway), there’s nothing balletic to the camera movements in the film, only athletic, and it quickly becomes tiresome. Naturally, we fear what might be revealed around every approaching corner, and we invest a lot on that anticipation, almost always getting nothing in return. Even a late-film, Rear Window–cribbed sequence in which Sarah must use the flashbulbs of a Polaroid to wend through the blackness, disappoints, as the directors are simply using the conceit to plow to the narrative conclusion rather than savoring the possibilities. And it must be said that, though telegraphed from the beginning, the revelation is not only surprisingly scummy and exploitative but also narratively nonsensical (and filled with erudite dialogue like “You’re making me do this, Sarah!” and “You’re such a loser!”), throwing the rest of this very dark film into a new, punishing light.
As also evidenced in Open Water, Kentis and Lau obviously like challenging themselves, their crews, and their actors; perhaps they thought they were setting forth to make the horror version of Russian Ark (itself about a haunted house of sorts). If only they felt the need to challenge their audiences as well. The twists that cap Silent House, however borrowed or adapted from the original text, are both overly expository and logically confounding at once. In Silent House, Kentis and Lau don’t throw Elizabeth Olsen in a tank with real sharks (though if given the chance . . .?), but they do something just as nasty: they give her a part that, in its final revelations, is clearly impossible to play. Forcing your main actor into the ludicrous histrionics that close the film is as much a disservice as exposing her to deadly fish.