Silent House review

Here comes another US remake of a recent foreign-language horror film, let’s all queue up to decry the dearth of imagination in American genre cinema as it sucks on the beating heart of the international film industry like a leathery vampire. Or lets not. If anything the kneejerk reaction that all remakes are bad is verging on becoming just as boring. Remakes, sequels and adaptations have been a staples since the earliest days of film. While it is truism that most remakes are inferior, the same has often said about book to film adaptations.

Having said all that, it is difficult to look at Silent House on its own merits if one has already seen the original film The Silent House aka La casa muda. This is because the American version is essentially the same film. Not just in terms of plot, it also in adopting the single take stylings of the Uruguyan original. The remake is directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau whose previous film, 2003’s Open Water, was similarly high concept in style.

The plot is simple, a young girl (played by rising star Elizabeth Olsen) is renovating a rural house with her father and uncle. After an argument the uncle departs, and the girl and her father are left alone in the house as night draws in. Because of vandalism the windows are boarded, and the only apparent entrance and exit is the front door. There is no electricity, phone, and of course no mobile reception (the later explained in one of those clumsy bits of exposition that are now de rigueur in modern horror films). With the girl and her father alone, bad things start to happen.

Important things first, the remake is superior to the original for two key reasons. The first is Olsen delivering a performance confirming the excitement around her. The entire film rests on the Olsen’s shoulders and she has to spend most of it in a state of near hysteria. In the original the lead actress often came across as annoyingly feeble, rooted to the spot and whimpering too much of the time. To be fair, I often felt that there was a 1st AD standing off frame telling her to look petrified whilst they set up the next room to continue the shot. Whilst Olsen’s character is not exactly Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, she is less prone to being rooted to the spot in fear.

The second area of improvement is the ending. I’m not going to give this away, but in the original film the ending unfolds very suddenly, and creates a sharp schism with what has preceded it as the viewer tries to retrofit it to preceding events. In the new version the ending unfolds more gradually so that when it is fully revealed it is much easier to accept.

I wasn’t convinced by the single take style of the original film, either practically or as the best way of telling this story. In the publicity prior to the US release of the remake there appears to have been an admission that this new version at least has not been completed in a single continuous take. Now the gimmick has been modified from “single take” to “real time”. This is understandable because it clearly isn’t a single take this time around. There is what appears to be a very clumsy cut about 10 minutes in and also a later scene where absolute darkness is used for effect. If the filmmakers did not cut here, then they are just making life difficult for themselves. In any case the digital technology now available to filmmakers means that we would have had to have taken any single-take claims on trust. Whatever, it is still shot in extremely long takes which will have been challenging to pull off. In effect, apart from the aforementioned jarring cut, the overall effect of the shooting style of original and remake is more or less identical.

In both versions of the film, the single take or long takes, the gimmick actually takes the attentive film fan out of the movie. You are constantly looking for hidden cuts, analysing how a scene has been blocked, and are aware of the camera and its operator in a way that does not aid immersion. The remake opens with an ostentatious crane shot looking down on Olsen then moving to ground level. You can practically see the moment the camera operator either steps off the crane, or passes the camera to another operator. It’s not all distracting, the style does serve the film in at least one respect. Because the directors can never cut away, the camera often frustratingly avoids looking in the direction in which the audience perceives a threat. This creates tension and a frission of fear as you imagine what lurks outside the frame.

Speaking of fear, is Silent House scary? Well again, this is hard to judge if you have already seen the original film. When I watched it, on DVD in my own silent house, there was a moment that actually made me jump off the sofa. While I can’t say the remake had that effect, had I not already seen the original film I’m sure I would have found Silent House scarier.

Ultimately, whilst I think Silent House is superior to the original, that doesn’t make it a great film. The shooting style is still something that feels like a technical exercise rather than a technique being used because it best suits the story. The story itself is relatively straightforward with even the twists of the last 15 minutes being things that seasoned horror fans will have seen before. By far the best thing about the film is Olsen, and if you want to see more of the actress after Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene then this is another great performance.

Silent House at IMDb

Read an interview with Silent House co-director Laura Lau

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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