Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Silent House (2011) on Blogcritics.
This oddity, which was nearly unanimously rejected by filmgoers during a brief March, 2012 release (it scored a dreaded ‘F’ on its CinemaScore rating), is a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film, La casa muda. The gimmick is that its story unfolds in real time, appearing to have been shot in one continuous take (in fact, there are numerous “hidden” cuts throughout). It’s a daunting trick, but also an old one—Alfred Hitchcock achieved the effect over 60 years ago with Rope (1948).
Of course, back when Hitchcock did it, there weren’t handheld digital cameras available. The crew had to lay dolly tracks and push around a 35 mm camera rig that was closer in size to a refrigerator. And to justify all the trouble, Hitchcock made sure he had a suspenseful and intriguing story to tell. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (Open Water) had the conveniences of modern technology at their disposal, but they stretched a story that might have made a mediocre Twilight Zone episode into an 86 minute feature.
The plot is the very definition of simplicity. Elizabeth Olsen stars as Sarah, a teenager who is helping her father, John (Adam Trese), and uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), prepare their lakefront house for sale. The huge, multi-level house is loaded with furniture and all manner of junk. The windows are boarded up and black mold is growing behind the drywall. Sarah stumbles around with an electric lantern, half-heartedly tossing stuff into boxes. Soon after Peter leaves, Sarah begins hearing unusual thumps and other noises, causing her enough alarm to insist her dad check it out. But then she somehow loses track of him, finding herself alone in the dark house. She begins catching glimpses of people, including a young girl and a zombie-like older man, stalking her at every turn.
That’s pretty much the gist of it. Is the house haunted? Are people squatting there who are now tormenting the rightful owners, who they view as intruders? Or is there possibly a more surprising, complex explanation? Saying anything further would really negate the entire movie. The movie does have a knockout performance by Elizabeth Olsen, who ramps up into hyperventilating hysteria in an entirely convincing way. Once fear overcomes her and she loses her grip on reality, Olsen perfectly conveys the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare you can’t wake up from. In its best moments, that’s what Silent House feels like—a realistically-staged bad dream. The third act does, in fact, reveal a twist but since there’s so little going on, plot wise, you may have a pretty good idea where it’s going long before it gets there.
Presented on Blu-ray in 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer, Silent House looks pretty decent in the rare times you get a good look at what’s onscreen. The majority of the film, which was shot with handheld digital cameras, is deliberately underlit. Sort of like The Blair Witch Project, the intent was to make it as realistic as possible. That makes it hard to assess as a high definition viewing experience. Close-ups of Olsen’s face are detailed and usually sharp when the camera is still. But beyond that, it’s all mixed bag. There is fine detail, as well as realistic textures, in some shots, but much of this is inevitably lost to the general murky darkness. I think the directors knew going in they weren’t going to wind up with perfect visuals, and what is here doesn’t look too bad. Black levels could be darker, but then again they wanted us to be able to make out something even in most of the darkest scenes.
On the audio side of things, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also going for natural realism. With many of the sound effects, you don’t know quite what you’re hearing, which is intentional because neither does Sarah. There is a wide variety of thumps and knocks, ranging from loud, bottom-heavy ones to thin, hollow variations. The mix is fairly immersive, placing you right there with Sarah as she moves about the house. Dialogue, what relatively little there is, comes across with no problem. Sudden loud noises, intended to make viewers jump, pop up from time to time, maybe not as often as one might expect, but there’s something to be said about the filmmaker’s restraint. All things considered, this isn’t the kind of movie that aims for technical perfection. Whatever weaknesses are can be pointed out in the picture or sound aren’t really damaging to the overall effect of the movie.
A commentary track by directors Kentis and Lau is the only supplementary feature on the disc. It might’ve been very interesting to see more about what was required behind the scenes to create the “real time” effect. But the commentary is pretty informative, with the directors offering quite a lot of information about how they pulled off the unbroken-take effect. The Blu-ray package also includes a standard DVD of the film, plus UltraViolet and digital copies.
Silent House is definitely spooky in places, but the material is simply lacking the depth to make it anything more than a technical exercise in goosing the viewer.