Silent House (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Silent House (2012)

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"Women are taught to be objects of spectacle."
-Judith Mayne-

There is a fascinating struggle at the center of Silent House that nearly results in brilliance and makes me wonder what the creative conversations were like outside of the films frame.  On the one hand the film features what may be the stupidest protagonist ever captured on film.  Every single horror movie "don't do that!" cliche you could think to throw in her direction is acted upon with the disciplined eye of the camera always on her.  There were a few moments I, much like our heroine, had to bite my fist to keep from yelling at the screen along with a few other enthusiastic hecklers in my audience.

Yet, Silent House understands the role women play in horror films much better than any film in recent history.  Those of you who have even the most rudimentary knowledge of feminist film theory may be able to guess what is going to happen after the first ten minutes, but that doesn't make the results any less intriguing to think about.  Like Sucker Punch, Silent House is doomed to be misunderstood in the public eye as another above-average horror film instead of the feminist reevaluation of horror tropes and scrutiny of the masterminds behind the scenes which make these recurring nightmares possible.

In essence, Silent House is a slightly more accessible version of Antichrist, a film I still hesitate to recommend to anyone but will nonetheless force on my friends here at Can't Stop the Movies some day.  What seems to first be a cinematic trick is, instead, and important tool in analyzing the male gaze and how it is used in cinema.  Those who are unable to look beyond the trick and ask the why are entitled to repeat how "scary" it is or isn't, for the rest of you interested in interesting film making feel free to plunge on.

The main hullabaloo around is it's one-shot premise.  All of Silent House is presented in a single, unbroken take which follows Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) when she arrives at the run down house being fixed up by her uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) and father (Adam Trese).  This is not a girl with many stabilizing women in her life, teased by her dad about a boy she recently broke up with posting on her Facebook wall, and creepily leered at by her uncle, who gives the impression he wants to be both father and something more.

As the night wears on and Sarah begins to hear bumps and is pursued by an increasing number of figures, this tension between father, lover, and protector is felt more.  This is why it is important for the film to begin in a God's eye view and present itself as one segment of time.  Sarah's actions are guided not by anything we would usually describe as "feminine", but is instead shaped by her ex-boyfriend, uncle, and father.  The camera positions her accordingly, following the standard convention of "distress = undress" as her uncle becomes a more prominent figure in the night and she is presented more "sexily".

Yes, Sarah makes a lot of the common mistakes because that's exactly what she has been forced into doing from the very beginning.  This is where some of the comparisons to Antichrist become very apparent, only in a slightly more narrow scope.  Antichrist condemned all men of forcing women into a narrative where they are forced to become crazy, maternal, or sexy.  Silent House focuses mostly on the haunted house, leaving other symbols of lost innocence and seduction around to point the way toward the ultimate condemnation of horror tropes at the end.  The conclusion is the tidiest, and least interesting, part of the film and I wish things were left far more vague than they are.

Silent House was brought to the screen by the same husband / wife team behind Open Water, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau.  That film also left a lot of people shaking their heads that "nothing happened", completely ignoring the horror of your insignificance on our own planet, let alone the universe.  The direction of Silent House feels a lot more pointed and direct as in this film there is a guiding force behind the events, it just is a lot less indifferent than the hungry sharks.

Then there's the matter of Elizabeth Olsen - she is going to be a huge star someday.  Between her role here and her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, she has already been asked to do some really heavy lifting in such a short time.  She moves between emotional cues effortlessly, hinting at the wave of loneliness because of recent separation with a single "Daddy?" and the madness she's feeling trying to stay alive.  Even though I was less convinced of the greatness of M4, I still loved her performance, and she proves she has a wider array of skills here.

The one-shot technique has come under fire by a number of reviewers who are looking for "outs" as to where Kentis and Lau could have cut the film with a fresh take.  This is an absolute waste of time and I wish people would focus more on the "why" than the "how".  Film has, and always will be, about a distortion of reality presented as authentic fiction.  Sometimes it manages to catch a real whiff of the truth.

Silent House (2012)
Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau.
Screenplay by Laura Lau.
Starring Elizabeth Olsen.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. interesting review. i root for elizabeth olsen, so i think i will see this

    • Thanks for the comment Candice. The camera is on her from the beginning, and I’m really impressed by what I’ve seen so far, so you should have an interesting experience.

  2. This is a really interesting take on the film. I also really liked it and appreciated how deep it dug into Sarah’s psychology versus a straight up home invasion/haunted house movie. You also managed to be spoiler free which is pretty astonishing considering how poignantly you touch on certain details. Glad at least someone else besides my friends and I enjoyed this movie. Everyone seems to hate it.

    • Thanks for the comment Jess. I it’s not the easiest movie to get into, either for the casual observer or the film buff. To be frank, I was feeling pretty indifferent about the movie until I got to writing about it and realized how much I had to say. I’m not always successful at keeping my thoughts spoiler-free because I think reviews need to talk about the blasted movie (compare this with my review for The Skin I Live In, which I didn’t spoil outright but might as well have.)

      I’m glad you enjoyed it as well.

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