An impressive exercise in sustained tension, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's single-shot horror remake Silent House is nevertheless a frustrating experience due to the fact that the duo compromise the original film as much as they improve on it.
Their summer cottage vandalized by squatters during the off-season, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), her father John (Adam Trese), and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) begin the laborious process of cleaning the place up to put it back on the market. Shortly after Peter leaves, however, noises from deep within the house hint that Sarah and her father are not alone. Now the deeper Sarah ventures into the derelict building, the further the secrets of her dark past are dragged out into the light.
Back in 2003, Kentis and Lau burst onto the scene with their debut film Open Water, a relentlessly tense thriller that some hailed as the next Jaws. Much like Silent House, Open Water was inspired by actual events, largely took place in a single setting, and presented a formidable technical challenge (in the case of Open Water, shooting essentially an entire feature while submerged in shark-infested waters). Curiously, as quickly as Kentis and Lau emerged, they seemed to vanish back into the swelling tide of salt-water imitators -- and a DOA sequel -- that followed. Now, nine years later, they're back and they've got an impressive lead with up-and-coming actress Olsen, fresh off her critical success from 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene. Unlike her character in that film, Olsen doesn't have a complex range of emotions to display here (at least, not until Silent House's mind-bending climax), although she manages the impressive feat of portraying suppressed terror with true conviction, and her presence in virtually every frame of the picture helps to make up for the prosaic performances from her co-stars Trese and Stevens.
From the start, we realize that Sarah is in mortal danger, and co-directors Kentis and Lau create an impressive atmosphere of claustrophobia and swelling dread. As the frightened young woman searches desperately for an escape from the boarded-up cottage, Silent House becomes a genuinely inspired, shadow-strewn game of cat and mouse. By streamlining a few of the more perplexing elements of the original screenplay, Lau makes the action more fluid. Behind the camera, her partner Kentis offers up some tantalizing clues to the origins of the malevolent mystery, while executing a series of satisfying set pieces with style and confidence. In the original film, it was often difficult to determine exactly what Sarah was searching for as she scoured the cluttered shelves around the house. In this remake, not only are her motivations entirely clear, but the central plot point is handled in a way that makes much more sense for someone attempting to hide a dark secret. But sadly, by compromising a crucial component of the original movie's big reveal, Lau not only betrays a key character's true motivation, he also cheats the audience out of a satisfying ending. As a result, the tension that had been so effectively building over the course of the previous hour instantly dissipates, leaving Silent House feeling suspiciously incomplete as the credits begin to roll. Even for those who have never seen the original, it's painfully obvious that something important had been omitted as the film simply stops, rather than ending.
The original version of The Silent House wasn't a great movie, but it displayed a unique style and sinister edge that helped to elevate the material and ensured that the film lingered in our minds for days after viewing. By negating their many improvements at the last possible second, Kentis and Lau purposefully dull that edge in order to appeal to a larger audience. As a result, a shining example of a remake done right becomes the worst kind of missed opportunity -- a movie with the potential to be a modern genre classic, had the filmmakers possessed the courage (and faith in the audience) to actually follow through on its disturbing central concept.