Sundance review: Midnight horror film 'Silent House' innovates technically, not narratively

Is that enough to win over an audience? The filmmakers behind 'Open Water' hope so

<p>Elizabeth Olsen has a wildly difficult job as the lead of the new horror film 'Silent House'</p>

Elizabeth Olsen has a wildly difficult job as the lead of the new horror film 'Silent House'

Credit: Elle Driver

PARK CITY, UT -- It is unusual for Sundance to open with a midnight movie, and especially with a press screening of a midnight movie.  I'm glad they did, though, even if I think "Silent House" is an exercise more than a movie.  And that's not a dismissal… just an observation.

I haven't seen "La Casa Muda," the film by Gustavo Hernandez, which was produced and released in Uruguay.  It played Cannes in 2010, and I remember seeing a trailer for it online and being impressed by what looked like a fair degree of technical polish and the clever idea of shooting the entire thing in one take.  Most of the reviews I read for the film liked the film up to a point, but the script seemed to pull some gymnastics that derailed the film for a number of viewers.  Considering the film only made its international premiere in May, it's sort of remarkable to be in January of the following year, already reviewing the remake.  It's also sort of remarkable that they made some major revisions to the structure and the characters, and yet they still have some of the same issues that irritated viewers in the original.

Chris Kentis and Laura Lau were accused by many of making a film that was all gimmick when they released "Open Water," but I think they showed skill and ambition with the way that film was put together.  It's a simple idea, yes, but that's one of the things good indie filmmakers do… they find ways to make movies that don't require $100 million budgets in order to work.  Evidently, they were offered this remake mid-summer, and now they're here at Sundance with it, the film already finished, and the room I saw the film in during the small hours of Friday morning was positively packed with buyers.  I would imagine someone's going to pick this one up at some point this week, and if they make a smart deal in the process, they could make a fair amount of money with it.

Elizabeth Olsen is the star of the film, and she's also in another film playing here this week, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," a film that may overlap this one in some thematic ways.  Olsen is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and she's a striking young woman.  Here, she stars as Sarah, a girl renovating an old family house with her father John (Adam Trese) so they can sell it.  There's no power in the house, and it's in fairly bad shape thanks to squatters vandalizing it and general rot.  They're being helped by John's brother, Sarah's Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), and they're finally almost done.  It's sort of creepy in the house with all the dark corners and covered chairs and mold in the walls, but at the start of the film, Sarah's happy.  She's enjoying the time with her dad, and she doesn't really fear the house at all.

The film is built on a foundation of secrets, of course, and one of the things the film does well is escalation.  Building the right series of scares in the right sequence and milking each one to its maximum potential is the goal, and the film does it well on a mechanical level.  Not perfectly, but well.  For the film to really pay off, we have to believe the choices that Sarah makes, and that's the biggest problem in the film for me.  Some audience members will be frustrated by her near-determination to stay in the house long past the moment she should leave and never look back, and they should be.  It's one of the most fundamental problems in horror films… how do you maintain the isolation or the seclusion or the claustrophobia without also denying the simple logic of what a real person would do.

The answer is that not everything you're seeing is what you're seeing, and without spoiling the film narratively, I'll just say that the film tips its hand early.  I think they offer up the explanation to things pretty much from the moment the characters start talking and I wasn't remotely surprised by the revelations the film had to offer.  What kept me interested was the technical accomplishment, and even if you don't like the script, you can't outright dismiss what Chris Kentis has done here.  It's an exceptionally well-choreographed film, and the idea of doing everything in one long uninterrupted take, making this a sort of "Russian ARRRRRGGGGH!", pays off in the way the film feels experiential.  I remember seeing an early preview screening of "Jurassic Park," and during the T-Rex attack scene in the car, the temperature in the Alfred Hitchcock Screening Room on the Universal lot actually went up.  It was a purely primal physical reaction to what people were watching, and during this morning's screening, the same thing happened.  There was a noticeable shift in temperature in the room, and people were having visceral, almost involuntary reactions to the tension level of the film.

There are a number of moments in the film where the staging pays off in clever ways, and I give credit to Olsen for holding the film together.  I don't think any of the other performers are particularly good, so it all falls on her, and she comes close to making the entire thing work just because of how much she invests in it.  I think the film's narrative resolution is suitably unpleasant, but it's also a fairly standard reveal.  I don't think anyone will be shocked or surprised, and in a film that makes such an effort at being technically bold, I wish the script had matched it in innovation.

As it stands, "Silent House" worked for me as an experience.  I have my reservations about it from a distance, but in the room, it will affect audiences.  I'm curious to see who picks this up and how they handle it.  I'm fairly sure that one way or another, you'll get a chance to see "Silent House" for yourself, and soon.

It's a full day of screenings today, and I'll be reporting in as I can.

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