(by Dustin Putman
A much-improved U.S. remake of the far-fetched 2011 Uruguayan suspenser "The Silent House (La casa muda)" directed by Gustavo Hernandez, "Silent House" embraces the elements that worked the first time while re-jiggering or deleting altogether the things that did not. What was originally little more than a flimsy, exceedingly ludicrous plot wrapped in a stylistic gimmick—it was purportedly filmed in a single unbroken shot—has been transformed here into a psychologically loaded, altogether more coherent example of crafty low-budget filmmaking. It's still not entirely air-tight for every second, but considering the lackluster feature they had to adapt, writer-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (2004's "Open Water") have excelled beyond all conceivable expectations. Article continues below
College-aged Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) has returned to the old country house she and her father John (Adam Trese) used to stay at when she was a child. Their goal is to fix the place up enough to put it on the market. With the power turned off and the windows boarded up to keep out squatters, the building has become an ominous maze of darkness and decrepitude, lit only by the lanterns they carry with them. When Sarah senses someone else is in the house with them, her suspicions turn to outright fear after John turns up badly wounded. With the place securely locked and the keys missing, Sarah will have to find a way to escape while evading the intruders if she hopes to make it out alive.
Hopes were not high walking into "Silent House." The original film, released in 2011 courtesy of IFC Films, was a major disappointment, so numb-skulled that the idiotic characters and their nonsensical actions kept getting in the way of the film's technical skill and ability to create tension. It is a happy surprise, then, that directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have bettered their source material in every way. Gone is the contrivance of having Sarah and John arrive at the house just in time to prepare for sleep while it's still daylight outside; in this telling, they have been there for days and are still in the midst of packing and throwing things out. Here, there is always a logical reason for why the characters are in the house, even when they have the chance to get out. Upon finding an exit the first time, Sarah is nearly run over by the truck driven by her Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens). She's relieved to have reached safety, but then can't believe it when Peter insists they go back to the house to rescue her injured dad. "You've gotta be fucking kidding me!" Sarah says in disbelief. It's the perfect reaction for a person who knows better.
Contributing enormously to the overall looming, nightmarish effect is a fleshed-out narrative with far more going on underneath the surface than meets the eye, traumas from Sarah's younger days resurfacing and reaching a head in the final twenty minutes as ghastly sexual and violent imagery collide with the mental collapse of a young woman in a fight for her life. Kentis and Lau resist the urge to toss in cheap jump scares; when their intended jolts occur, they are organic and have been well-earned. Beyond that, the film is a masterful exercise in moviemaking complexity, told in real time and featuring precious few detectable edits. Planning the shooting must have been daunting, with pressure especially heavy on the actors and cameraman to not mess up. An extensive making-of documentary would make for a fascinating companion piece to the finished product.
As the focal point for the film's full 85-minute running time, Elizabeth Olsen (2011's "Martha Marcy May Marlene") is a rapturous force. One false move, and the illusion of "in-the-moment" reality would be irreparably destroyed. That never happens. Olsen is beyond watchable in her second film, and second award-worthy performance; in her every intuitive motion, she creates a classic protagonist of irresistible depth, resourcefulness and vulnerability, highlighting a wide range of emotions that she can seemingly check on and off at will—quite a plus considering she acts most of it in an elongated single cut. The camera loves her, and the audience doesn't dare look away.
The spare line of dialogue may sounds stilted (as when John and Peter call each other "brother" to establish their relationship), but in all, "Silent House" weaves an intoxicating spell of dread. Intense without having to go down predictable routes to elicit screams, the picture never shrinks from Sarah's ordeal. It is her journey to take, and directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau wisely insist it be ours, too. Meanwhile, additions to the script are top-notch, some business with the opening and closing of an SUV's hatchback as Sarah sits alone in the passenger seat especially inventive and unsettling. Even the twisty ending works—a surprise since a similar revelation only came off as moronic in the earlier foreign version. The keys to success are in the treatment of the story, the intelligence with which it's crafted, the commitment of the actors, and the understanding that even a deeply flawed project can be fixed with a few judicious nips and tucks. Remake or not, the provocative "Silent House" has been born anew.