With good moves often producing bad trends, it’s refreshing to note the positive impact Paranormal Activity has had on the horror genre. We’ve pulled away from the empty excess of torture porn into more old-fashioned tales that emphasize elegant scares over copious bloodletting. They haven’t all been masterpieces, of course, but the likes of The Woman in Black, The Innkeepers and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark have helped raise the bar from the appalling lows of just a few years ago. Silent House nobly attempts to further that agenda, and the fact that it doesn’t quite succeed shouldn't deter from those honorable efforts.
The film embraces a number of double-edged swords, which ultimately hinder its impact but also make it very interesting as a conversation piece. For starters, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau frame the whole thing as one unbroken shot, taking place in real time and using a lone camera to follow their plucky heroine (Elizabeth Olsen) from place to place. The tactic echoes the found-footage form, and Silent House deserves credit for a graceful approach, but the artifice of the tactic speaks more to a theoretical exercise than an actual film.
The subject matter displays a similar tendency: mixing some really strong elements with a comparatively weak follow-through. Silent House plays very coy with the exact nature of the scenario. We begin in the company of Olsen’s Sarah as she wanders into the family house that her father (Eric Sheffer Stevens) and uncle (Adam Trese) are fixing up. It’s old and creepy, though at first nothing appears amiss. But when the uncle heads to town on an errand and the father suddenly disappears, Sarah finds herself beset by forces unknown. She can’t escape the house, she has no idea who’s after her, and the lack of outside help means she has no one else to turn to if she wants to get out of the situation alive.
The scenario raises a lot of questions which Silent House works hard to answer. Indeed, the mystery lends flavor to the straightforward scenario by constantly shifting probable explanations. At first, there seems to be an intruder in the house. Then it feels like a haunting. Then Sarah’s own perceptions slowly become suspect, leading to a final revelation clearly intended to blow our minds. It advertises itself far too early and some slipshod acting ruins the climactic revelation, but for the most part it aptly prevents the scene from becoming too repetitive.
And whatever quibbles may exist about the format, it delivers brilliantly in the suspense department. Silent House provides a textbook example of how the camera guides and restricts our view, creating feverish suppositions about what may be lurking in the corners. Lighting goes a long way too: the house lacks central power, lit only by batteries and lanterns, and while we begin the grey light of afternoon, the creeping twilight creates an increasing sense of dread. It’s helped by Olsen’s ability to convincingly stifle a scream, and her inherent sympathies instantly land the audience firmly in her corner. With those assets on display, it creates another efficient stimulus-response spook house: its creative jolts augmented by the underlying question toying with our imaginations.
Unfortunately, that question eventually requires an answer and when it arrives, Silent House proves sadly unprepared for the burden. Once we know the secret, we have to watch the characters struggle with the fallout of it. And in one fell swoop, the carefully constructed atmosphere collapses before amateur dramatics and knee-jerk retribution. The figures onscreen suddenly undergo radical personality changes for the sake of plot expediency, a mysterious neighbor (Julia Taylor Ross) pops in solely remind us of her existence, and the overwhelming need for catharsis overwhelms any kind of plausible storytelling tools. The Paranormal Activity sequels also struggled to stick the dismount, but not to the destructive effect that Silent House does. We could forgive those earlier films more readily because the stumble was smaller and the rest of the movie more modest. Here, the combination of a very effective technical production and a more purposeful storyline leaves more to be undone, and the resulting damage is considerable.
Does that mean it's not worth seeing? Perhaps... though my ultimate thumbs down belies what is in many ways an excellent film. But its central purpose hinges completely on the ending, and the proposed purpose of the exercise suffers so horrendously from its ninth-inning swoon that it's hard not to feel the sting. As another haunted house movie, it has credentials that few genre fans should miss. But its deeper message can't quite survive its mistakes... something that no production this assured should ever have to endure. It doesn't make Silent House a bad movie -- far from it -- just one that ultimately fails to reach its potential.