I usually don’t review DVD releases here, preferring to stick to films currently showing at cinemas, on the basis that even fewer people are probably interested in what I think once a film has seen a DVD release. But occasionally I’ll make exceptions, when a film is particularly good or particularly awful.
Silent House, for me, falls into the former category.
The plot didn’t strike me as anything terribly unusual or exciting. Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is repairing a countryside holiday home with her father and uncle. When her uncle goes into town Sarah hears strange noises upstairs, which her father investigates for her, before going missing with a loud and violent-sounding crash. Cue the realisation that they aren’t alone in the house, and a fraught and frenetic rush to get out of the house as her sanity crumbles under the strain.
So nothing ground-breaking there. But where it does deviate from the standard, by-the-numbers horror fare is in how it is made. The first and most noticeable thing is that it is all a single take (else very cleverly edited to make it look like a single take). The real-time element was heavily trailed in the promotional material, and it’s a pretty effective gimmick.
The other main feature is the use of a hand camera. This isn’t a new idea, and has been done effectively (the Battlestar Galactica remade series springs to mind), as well as poorly (no end of wobbly found-footage films following the Blair Witch Project, for instance). Here, however, it works because the camera isn’t held by Sarah, but follows her very closely.
She is continually at the centre of the camera’s attention, as it lingers just over her shoulder or in front of her face. In fact, most of the developments are revealed to the audience firstly through Sarah’s reaction to them — a scream and terrified expression followed by the camera wheeling to look at whatever it is.
It’s a hypnotic technique, which combined with the dark and claustrophobic confines of the house puts the audience more effectively into her shoes. And in terms of creating an atmosphere, the fact that it doesn’t rely on “jump moments” for the scary. Not that there’s anything wrong with jump moments, but they can feel like lazy horror sometimes. Instead, Silent House puts you in Sarah’s position, and then slowly ramps up the tension and terror, and then either lets it ebb away with a sense of relief, or scares the life out of you.
I found it extremely effective.
And it would be unfair not to mention the acting talents of Elizabeth Olsen. The whole film is more or less a one woman show, and it’s pretty plain to see where all the acting talent in that family wound up. Unusually, most of the acting is through her facial expressions, and I expect the majority of actors would not be able to communicate such a range of emotion and meaning through that medium alone.
The visuals and some of the ideas behind it seem strongly reminiscent of the Silent Hill games — another premier example of horror — with toilets on the wall weeping blood, and mould spreading rapidly across the house. Similarly, the blurring of the line between madness and the supernatural, and the idea of memory and a “personal” flavour of horror characterised by oppression and claustrophobia is a roost that Silent Hill rules.
It was successful, in that it was scary and brilliantly acted, but I was left with a nagging feeling that it could have been perfect had the same effort been put into the script and plot. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but when everything else is so cutting edge, run-of-the-mill stands out a mile off and feels a little lacklustre.
But in the end, this was a very exciting approach to horror, and is well worth watching for that alone.