Want to know the most powerful force in the world?
No, it's not love. Love is No. 8, just ahead of peanut butter cookies and right behind farm dogs with rabies. Honestly, I think those guys got shafted in the coaches' poll. A farm dog with rabies is unstoppable. You will cry. And then he'll bite out your throat. That's how those things always end.
So what's actually the most powerful force in the world? I'm not going to tell you! Which will serve as immediate proof for the runner-up on the charts: the strength of audience expectations. Mess with those in the wrong way, and you will actually die. The audience will wish you had, anyway. Even done well, the unexpected is dangerous territory. When you bungle it, like in Silent House, you'll probably just make everybody mad.
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Elizabeth Olsen's family lake house is a mess. The windows are broken and boarded up. The power's out. There's flood damage. If they want to sell it, she and her dad Adam Trese have a lot of work ahead of them.
While they're clearing it out, someone breaks into the house. Trese is knocked out. Olsen's alone and locked inside — and the violent stranger seems to have no intention to leave.
The most noteworthy thing about Silent House is it's shot to appear to be one long, continuous take. Actually, the most significant thing about it is that it's pretty stupid, but let's not get into that yet. But for puzzling reasons which can only be uncovered by future generations, Silent House was advertised not on the strength of its stupidity, but for being one relentless real-time scare. That's been done before — by Hitchcock, for one — but it's still rare enough to be interesting.
It works well enough in the beginning. The camera sticks tight to Olsen, creating a claustrophobic aura well before the bad business starts up. It helps that their house is creepy as hell. Not in an overblown way, either. There are no skeletons tap-dancing in the vents or troll dolls bursting out of cereal boxes and snatching up the nearest butcher knife in their little plastic hands. It's simply dark and decaying. With horror, simplicity goes a long way.
But Silent House proves to be too simple. Things are a little creepy, then a bad man or men break into the house, then Olsen spends the next half an hour crying silently under tables and failing to grasp basic lock-and-key technology. There's no development of this situation. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau don't bother giving us the slightest idea of who this man is or why he's here. That's bad storytelling.
Meanwhile, the camerawork yanks us around like Gandalf and Saruman's wizard-brawl. Not in the sense of its physical motion, but in terms of how manipulative it is. The intruder is always out of focus. The camera sticks so tight to Olsen we have no idea what's around her. Teasing is a big part of horror, but there's a bit of a difference between being teased and being outright denied the slightest hint of satisfaction.
To which you might argue, "Yeah, well, The Blair Witch Project." But then I would say "We knew right off the bat that Blair Witch was about a Blair Witch. So all those teasing details fit into the movie's internal logic while building on each other toward a satisfying conclusion. You dork."
Silent House doesn't do that. The shreds of exposition it does dole out are so obvious they may as well literally spell out the ending in big block letters. Then again, whatever tension it builds up in the first half is long gone anyway. Unless you're a collector of wasted potential, Silent House isn't worth the trip to the theater.