The Story: A young woman helps her father renovate a house that has been in their family for years, and begins to learn its dark secrets.
Expectations: The title suggests a haunted house movie. If I hadn't read the Netflix synopsis -- which suggests that the movie is about the main character's "descent into madness" -- that's probably what I would have expected. The synopsis also made me aware that, by watching this, I was breaking one of the rules of my 30 days experiment. I've been trying to stay away from remakes and sequels, but apparently this one is a remake -- of the 2010 Uruguayan film LA CASA MUDA. You know the drill: Hollywood buys the rights to a foreign horror film that most American audiences don't know about, then hires a hip young filmmaker (in this case, OPEN WATER creators Chris Kentis and Laura Lau) to put their spin on it, and sells it as something completely new. In this case, the remakers stuck to the gimmickry of the original, which takes place in one shot and in real time.
Just yesterday, I was writing about Hitchcock's use of confined space... Today, I'm reminded of his film ROPE, which also appears to take place in one shot and in real time. A filmmaker with the guts to tackle that kind of storytelling experiment needs good actors, and I felt confident that Elizabeth Olsen -- who was stunning in MARTHA MAY MARCY MARLENE (2011) -- was up to the task.
Reaction: This type of film is like a litmus test for horror audiences. Because it is essentially one long uninterrupted scare scene, it can be a bit overbearing. Most horror critics say that audiences prefer a rollercoaster ride -- a story that builds suspense, then releases the tension, then starts building again. Without the built-in release, they argue, audiences will become overwhelmed and instinctively pull themselves out of the movie. I don't entirely disagree with this philosophy. I can point to at least one movie, Ti West's HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), that worked the other way for me. I found myself getting occasionally frustrated by SILENT HOUSE's unrelenting darkness (literal and figurative), but I was also frequently drawn in by the sense that I couldn't escape. We are literally standing next to Elizabeth Olsen for the entirety of the film. There are no editing breaks to relieve tension... We have to endure every terrifying second, just as she does.
The bigger problem, for me, was the storyteller's failure to identify and localize the threat. For the first half of the movie, I kept wondering: What is she running from? Is it a human threat? A ghost? Or is it all in her mind? Based on the Netflix spoiler, I thought I might be watching an update of Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965), but without the nuance. At times, however, the camera would pick up a figure in the background that Olsen's character seemed completely unaware of... Doesn't that imply that there is an objective threat? At other times, Olsen sees something that is gone minutes or seconds later. There are no ghostly visual effects, but the filmmakers are clearly using the cinematic language of a ghost story (in addition to using the cinematic language of a slasher movie) to scare their audiences. This sort of thing can really aggravate me, when a filmmaker fails to stick to a specific subgenre... A horror film without internal logic just isn't scary.
The filmmakers manage to mostly rein in their story in the second half, thanks to a mostly compelling performance by Elizabeth Olsen. Mystery finally gives way to straightforward horror. To say any more would ruin the film for those who haven't seen it.... and, while hardly brilliant, SILENT HOUSE is interesting enough to be worth seeing.
Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: There's a scene in this film that reminds me a lot of my favorite scene in the excellent Korean horror film SHUTTER (2004). It uses a very simple scare tactic involving a camera flash.... Simple, but (for me at least) very effective.