Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part III: Silent House (2011)

Continuing our series on the heritage of The Blair Witch Project: not just found-footage movies, but movies whose technique is inextricably bound up with their content.

ICONIC TALISMAN: Does a toilet count?
MOMENT OF SNIVEL: Not really, though closer than the original.

Silent House is a remake of the Uruguyan film La Casa Muda from 2010, and while it follows the outline of La Casa Muda fairly closely, there are some very important differences. Since any discussion of the film and its inspiration requires me to reveal their darkest secrets, this little review assumes you’ve either seen one or both films, or that you don’t care about Spoilers.

The first thing you realize about Silent House, if you watch it and the Uruguayan original back-to-back, is that Silent House looks much more like A Movie than La Casa Muda did.

La Casa Muda was shot on a still camera (!), and it has a cinema vérité feel to it; while it’s true that the oppressive darkness of the film makes it difficult to see what’s going on much of the time, the overall effect is to give the movie a sense of immediacy and realism. The original didn’t rely on standard camera tricks to heighten the story, and the result was a film that felt like a Blair Witch-style POV experience… even though it wasn’t. Sure, the Uruguayan film was also cleverly blocked and shot, but the camera work was subtle… so that the audience came to take the camera for granted.

Silent House has a totally different aesthetic. Its very first shot is a dramatic overhead look at Sarah, the heroine, sitting alone on a rocky shore. The image announces itself as a Composed Shot — you could take a still from the opening scene and frame it, or make a calendar out of it. The camera then descends gently to ground level, to join the girl as she walks to The House. We’re aware of the camera, impressed by the images it captures and the smoothness of its movements.

The divergences continue: La Casa Muda revealed its hints quietly, so quietly that many of them weren’t obvious until you saw the movie a second time. For example, the heroine Laura’s reaction on first catching sight of the House is to catch her breath and stop, just for a moment. That moment goes by so quickly it’s easy to dismiss it, but it’s still important. In Silent House, on the other hand, Sarah has already been at the house, working on the cleanup, for some time before the movie starts. We have no opportunity to gauge her first reaction to the House. Furthermore, Sarah’s House belongs to her family — and rather than being asked to come help a friend, Sarah and her father are working alongside Sarah’s uncle.

Barely 5 minutes into the film, the writers of Silent House attempt to cram so much obvious foreshadowing into the dialogue that it’s a wonder anybody was surprised by the twist that comes later in the film. Sarah’s uncle discovers that there’s mold in the walls of The House — it’s possible (wink, wink) that the whole structure is rotten with corruption. “If you cover it up, we’ll never know!” says Sarah. Ah, of course.

But let’s just be brutally frank for a moment: the underlying concern of this movie, its Prime Motivator, is… child rape. You need to be extremely careful when you’re dealing with a topic like that, because it doesn’t lend itself to simple exploitation. If you were making a movie with such a sensitive issue at its heart, would you want one of the opening images of your film — in a scene laden with symbolic significance — to be… Daddy widening a hole with his sledgehammer? Really? Was anybody thinking about this?

“Just looking at it is making me sick,” says the uncle. I agree.

When the infamous Polaroid camera makes its first appearance, Silent House again distances itself from La Casa Muda by falling back into Movie Mode. The camera zooms in slowly on Sarah’s face, gradually excluding the action in the foreground. A bewildered look appears on her face. An ominous pedal point on the soundtrack tells us that This Means Something. And then, shortly afterwards, the hints start coming that all is not well in this apparently tight-knit family.

The ghostly little girl in La Casa Muda — who might be a symbol of Laura herself, or the ghost of an aborted fetus, or something entireley different — has been replaced in Silent House by two different figures. One is a fully-grown young woman of Sarah’s own age. This Sophia is an independent character, who interacts with Sarah as a long-lost friend that Sarah seems to have forgotten about. I’m not sure that’s an improvement… especially considering that Sophia is introduced outside the house. If nothing else, that brief interlude spoils the growing sense of claustrophobia, which was handled so well in the original. The second mysteriously-appearing figure is, surprise! a ghostly little girl, but in this case she’s obviously (too obviously) a symbol of Laura herself as a child.

Nearly all the ambiguity is missing from the remake. In Silent House, there’s a moment at which you can pinpoint the shift in reality — it’s when Sarah finds the red box (perhaps she rented Silent House from the Red Box, and fast-forwarded to the end? Hmmm…). Everything before that can be considered to have unfolded in a linear and comprehensible manner. La Casa Muda may have been intended to work in the same way, but I came away from it feeling as though there was no clear line between what was to be taken literally and what was pure hallucination. It’s possible to see the first two-thirds of the Uruguyan movie as entirely metaphorical. And certainly there were no wall-mounted bleeding toilets in La Casa Muda — followed by the all-too-blatant return of the sledgehammer — to make the situation plain. The difference between the two movies is this: one is a competent horror movie with a squirm-inducing twist… and the other, the original, forces the attentive viewer to think very carefully about how we process the information we see on the screens that fill our daily lives.

Both movies were shot with a gimmick: they both appear to have been shot in one continuous take. They weren’t, really, but that’s beside the point… both films are technically extraordinary. Again, though, their aesthetics are completely different: in the original, both the technique and the story are urging you — coercing you, really — to take what you’re seeing at face value, only to betray you in the end. The original used very little obvious trick camera work, and when it did — for instance, when Laura is out in the woods, disoriented, and the camera spins to find her in unexpected places — it came as something of a shock. In the American film, as I mentioned in discussing the opening, the single-take gimmick is just an overlay: otherwise it relies on the standard cinematic vocabulary of camera movements and setups. When it does get all hand-heldy and Blair Witch-y, that comes as something of a shock.

Still, considered purely on its own terms, Silent House is mostly an effective thriller. The cast is very good — though it might be a little disturbing to see an Olsen sister (even though it isn’t one of The Twins) in a movie about child abuse, Elizabeth Olsen delivers a fine performance in a role that keeps her on-screen for the entire duration of the movie. All the Olsen sisters have a sort of neotenic cast to their features — it’s part of what kept Mary Kate and Ashley a viable franchise for so long, and is clearly evident in the promotional image of Elizabeth used for the poster and DVD cover. This makes Elizabeth a wise choice for this particular role — she has a certain child-like vulnerability built into her very appearance. It might have been better had the camera not developed an inappropriate interest in her cleavage, which (considering the ending) makes us in the audience feel a tad queasy.

What really makes me uncomfortable, though, is Silent House‘s decision to change the underlying reason for all the horror.

La Casa Muda‘s back-story concerned the sexual abuse of an adolescent girl — a girl just old enough to fall prey to older men while believing she was making decisions for herself (it’s strongly suggested that Laura was under the age of consent, though that’s not made explicit… the age difference alone between Laura and the men, to say nothing of the incestuous aspect, makes it ugly enough). This abuse resulted — apparently, since everything is open to question in La Casa Muda — in a pregnancy and in the loss of the child, either to an abortion or something even more drastic. If the Polaroids we see are to be believed, La Casa Muda‘s Laura was tricked (with the help of alcohol) into believing she was a participant on equal footing with the adults who abused her… which she, as a girl on the cusp of sexual maturity, might well have been anxious to believe. Laura is driven to madness and murder not just by the abuse (though that would have been enough), but even more by Nestor’s subsequent abandonment and betrayal — that is, by her internal struggle, and her own feelings of guilt for having gone along with him and her father. Laura’s madness is personified by the phantom of a little girl, who might represent her lost child, or possibly her own ruined childhood. But the fact that this ghostly little girl shows up in the Polaroids, when she’s clearly a hallucination, makes us wonder if the Polaroids themselves are to be trusted.

By contrast, Silent House‘s Sarah was violated when she was very, very young. It’s all clear-cut: there’s no pregnancy, no doubt about her status as a minor, no troubling questions in her own mind about whether she was capable of giving consent, no terrible conflict between longing and loathing. Sarah’s phantom isn’t a mute little girl: she’s a full-grown young woman her own age — with a name — who actually explains things to Sarah at the dénoument. And certainly there’s no possible ambiguity as to what’s real and what’s not after Sarah looks in the mirror.

Far from making us doubt our deepest instincts, and question if anything we’ve seen has been literally true, Silent House goes out of its way to tell us what’s happened, and how we ought to feel about what’s going on… The movie even cuts away coyly from Sarah’s actual murder of her father and its aftermath, in an attempt to keep our sympathy. Contrast this with the way La Casa Muda‘s camera suddenly assumes the point of view of the dying Nestor at the end of the main part of the story — putting us in the position of the rapist. Silent House‘s conclusion seems to undercut the point of the original, which left us too uncomfortable to sympathize with anybody in the story. Even Laura. Especially Laura.

Considering its subject matter and the potentially-infuriating nature of its twist, I suppose it’s remarkable that the American film got made at all. Bearing in mind how many changes and (over-)simplifications American horror movies often go through before they are released to a mainstream audience, Silent House is a pretty typical effort. If you didn’t like it, I’d suggest giving the Uruguyan original a try. If you did like it, then I think you should watch the original, too: you may be surprised at what La Casa Muda could achieve with such limited resources. But if you hated the Uruguyan film, you’ll probably find little to please you in the remake. At least in the original, there were no tasteless double-entendres about sledgehammers, and no bleeding toilets.

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