johnlink ranks SILENT HOUSE (2011)

Another one I knew precious little about going in. I knew this starred the third Olsen, Elizabeth Olsen, and that this movie and the excellent MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE put her on the map. I knew it was a one-shot, real time horror film and that it had something to do with a house. I’m a sucker for good horror, and I’m going to be seeking out Olsen’s work from now on, so I’m glad to have gotten this in. SPOILERS at the end, but I will give plenty of warning when I get there.


I watched SILENT HOUSE (2011) on 6.9.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

First, some housekeeping:  this is a remake of a foreign film. The foreign film also did the real-time gimmick. I know nothing else about the foreign film. That is not to discount it’s value. Sometimes the original is better than the remake (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) sometimes, the remake outshines the source(THE RING). All I can do here is consider the movie I watched.

Secondly, what is it we want out of a horror movie? Scares for sure. Some solid tension and a sense of dread. Logic. Acting which at least gets the job done. Capable writing.

SILENT HOUSE sits around a 5.2 on IMDB. Usually, once the rankings at the end of each article comes in, I am somewhere in the neighborhood of the IMDB average. Sometimes a little up or down, but usually I am within a point and a half (unless I really hate something). Rarely am I several points higher than the average impression of the masses.

Well, with this one, there is quite the difference.

SILENT HOUSE concerns a young woman, Sarah (Olsen) and her Dad (Adam Trese) as they attempt to fix up and sell an old house with the help of Sarah’s uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens). The house has long been overrun by squatters, so the windows are all boarded up and the place is a bit of a wreck.

The opening shot is a majestic look down on Sarah as she considers the water. The crane comes down, and the camera operator steps off the platform and follows Sarah as she walks towards the house. Right away, it is apparent that the camera is a character here, is important here. By drawing so much attention to the device of the camera, we are intended to realize something. More on that in the spoilers.

So the one-shot thing isn’t honest. Like Hitchcock’s ROPE, there are moments when the camera settles on a still set as a character walks out of frame. When they return, it can be assumed, we are looking at a new shot, a new take. This doesn’t detract in any way from the movie because it is done deftly. In fact, the real-time aspect of the movie adds to the effect and is vital to understanding the conclusion.

Olsen is spectacular. She has to carry fear for a good 70 minutes of this movie’s 85 minute run time. She pulls it off. When we think she gets relief around the half-way mark by making it out of the house, she doesn’t. We know she CAN’T get true relief yet because this is a horror movie which is only half over and being done in real-time. At this point, she has to go back to her house to find out what has happened to her father. We are barreling towards the conclusion full speed. I just can’t say enough about how well she puts this movie on her shoulders and runs with it. She really nails the tone of this so perfectly. We always BELIEVE she is scared for her life. She is so, so good.

The acting of the males isn’t terrible, though it is less inspired. A scene with the father near the end is weak. Furthermore, there are issues with the fact that Sarah really wants to get out of the house, and is prevented from doing so by boarded up windows. Sorry, kids, there are plenty of heavy objects around. She wants out of that room and to not go back down into the main hall? She could if she were determined. To think this is explained by the end would be a mistake since she clearly does want to get out  of the house, and can get out, as proven by the moment when she runs out.

The tension in this movie is palpable. I was pressed against the edge of the couch for much of it. Except for a moment with a Polaroid camera flash, nothing feels cliche or forced (and even that moment works for all of its cliche).  I don’t know if audiences were frustrated by the real-time, or by the hand-held camera, or by the logic of not doing whatever it took to get out of the house. I can imagine that some were frustrated by the ending. But, to those people I say: Look harder.

There is some heavy-handed foreshadowing in this. We can see there is something amiss from the first conversation between uncle-and-niece and the first appearance of some Polaroids. We don’t want it to go where we think it might go, but we can’t stop it. That merely adds to the tension and the empathy we feel for Sarah.

Landmark horror movies do all of the things I mentioned in the opening of this article, and then one more thing. For movies like HALLOWEEN, they redefine what a horror movie is. For SCREAM or CABIN IN THE WOODS they call into question the mechanisms a horror movie utilizes. SILENT HOUSE is a movie of a different sort. It is not a perfect movie (I still can’t believe she wouldn’t bust down the windows) but it gets its beats right, it gets the tone right, and it has an absolutely dynamic explanation for why everything happens. It’s not an easy movie to crack, and because so many horror movies are made to be merely on the surface, it doesn’t surprise me that many viewers couldn’t be bothered to try cracking it. I blame the state of the genre for that. So when a movie comes around that actually does ask you to stop and think about what you’ve seen, why you’ve seen it, and how it all occurred? Well I have to give a movie like that a high recommendation.

And that is where we will end the non-spoiler section of this. For those that want to know the ranking, zip down to the bottom, beneath both pictures, for the scores (spoiler alert: it gets high marks). For those who have seen it and want to engage a little further, read between the pictures. LAST WARNING, SPOILERS BELOW.


Ok, let’s talk. I think people felt cheated by the end, much like I felt cheated by the end of HIGH TENSION. But, in SILENT HOUSE, we are talking about a different beast entirely. Nothing is wasted, nothing is useless. Sure, there are red herrings like the squatter’s bed in the basement which is used to throw us off the scent.

But let’s get right to it. The house is connected to Sarah, or it is to her subconscious anyway. If you’re reading this far you have hopefully seen it. So it’s safe to say, here, that her father molested her while her uncle watched. It all happened in the house. The house, now, serves as a symbol of her mind. It is not coincidence that all of this stuff starts happening when her Dad drives a sledge hammer through the wall: he has opened up the crack. It’s small at first, resulting in the return of her imaginary friend Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross). Watch that conversation again. Sarah never asks Sophia anything. The entire scene is for information about Sarah for the sake of the viewer, sure, but for Sarah herself as well. There are holes in her head, she tells us, not the least of which is the one her father just put in the wall of the house.

Consider the use of the real-time camera gimmick. In a lesser movie it is just that: an art house gimmick to try and impress film geeks. Here, it is vitally important. Because the camera is always with her, we know she did not physically do any of the things that happened in the house. She couldn’t have. We were with her. By keeping the camera on her we know she didn’t do it physically. Some people have dismissed the movie as making no sense, but they aren’t seeing the obvious: she didn’t do it.

She creates things with her mind. It’s the power she has over the house, or that the house has over her. She creates these ghosts or entities, or whatever. She doesn’t know she does it because the house, remember, is working in tandem with her subconscious. There is also question as to whether she creates them and then she controls them subconsciously, or whether she creates them and they are free to run amok. I’d have to watch it again to make a call on that.

Another question, which I think I know the answer to, concerns her wrists. She has a cut on her wrist when she gets in her uncle’s car. As far as I could tell, we never saw that happen. I believe she did that with her mind, a result of everything else that was happening and then reinforced by the bathroom scene later on. Please correct me if I am wrong!

The last ambiguity I have is a matter of what is actually there and what she merely sees. Both happen. Her father and uncle are assaulted by something. It actually happens. But her friend is imaginary and unseen. What about the bathroom? The people outside? Those could be images only she can pick up on, or it is possible that she has the power to manifest these things in a way that they actually do happen.

When she finally takes over control, when she steps into the place of the man she has created to do all this damage, she is suddenly on her own. It leads to that one badly acted scene after she frees her father when he instantly goes insane in an unbelievable way. At that point the entities have left, her subconscious and her conscious have, quite literally, joined up in the same spot. She is left to fight for herself. She does, gladly, even making a choice to let her uncle live.

Finally, she walks out the door, into the front yard, and then out of the frame. The camera stays trained on the house, the silent house, for a moment before cutting to black. The last thing we see is not her, but the house.

I love the questions this film raises. They are challenging questions, but not ones which render the film unattainable, or erroneous. I can’t wait to watch this again knowing what I know now!




The bonus point is for the amazing hand-held camera work. They chase Sarah all through the house, and manage to land some awesome shots along the way. Really powerful work.



~ by johnlink00 on June 10, 2013.

5 Responses to “johnlink ranks SILENT HOUSE (2011)”

  1. Wow – you gave this a lot more thought than I did – you make me want to watch it again and think about these things…!!

    • Well, there are plenty of similar movies I haven’t bothered giving a thought to, so I don’t blame you, haha.
      Maybe I was just trying to find a way to defend Elizabeth Olsen because I love her 🙂

  2. […] SILENT HOUSE […]

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