Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A haunted inn vs. a Silent House

I am flying solo on this one because William is too enlightened for horror. (And oddly enough, we're still together.) My best friend flew out for a visit last weekend, so, as is our tradition, we did it up right with lots of blood, guts, and ghosts. Our picks included Silent House and the Innkeepers, two recent low-budget horror flicks I'd been really excited to see.

We've seen a lot of gimmicks in horror in recent years, like POV/"found footage" ([Rec]/Quarantine/Paranormal Activity 1-3) and films that look from top to bottom like they were made in a different decade (The House of the Devil). In the best of the these, the gimmick is a bonus, the icing on the cake of a movie that works in its own right. The events in the latest entry, Silent House, occur in real time and depict 85 harrowing minutes in the life of Sarah, played by Elizabeth Olsen. The camera follows Sarah through the ruins of her all but condemned childhood home, where she's being stalked by someone or something sinister. To elaborate further would be to spoil in a major way.

The real-time device works best at the start, when Sarah's situation begins to deteriorate from unsettling in some unidentifiable way to truly threatening. Olsen's performance as Sarah actually does more for the movie than the camera work or even the pitch blackness of the house, which raises too many questions about just how this house was rendered completely light-tight in broad daylight. (A neat touch, yes, but I spent too much time wondering about its plausibility for it to be truly effective.) Rather than peering out from under matted tresses like a homeless waif, she puts those big Olsen eyes to good use looking absolutely terrified for nearly the entire duration. But despite her best efforts to convince the audience of how scared she is (and they are admirable efforts), her performance can't turn a mediocre, seen-it-before scenario into something truly frightening. The experience of watching Silent House is one with which horror fans are all too familiar. There is a ramping up period, full of WTF? moments, where every little thing makes you jump as you try to figure out what's really going on or what's going to happen next. The best of these sustain this feeling all the way up to a satisfying conclusion. In the ones that miss the mark, you figure out fairly early on what's in store (not hard in this case if you've ever seen a movie with a similar twist, and there are many), which realization leads to a deflating depression, followed by acceptance, resignation, and ultimately eye-rolling. I wanted this to be so unique, but once my companion began whispering things next to me like "why are you going in the basement?" "could you breathe any louder?" "if all this is because she's been breathing in mold, I'm going to be pissed," I knew I was in trouble. For me this one had a lot of promise but fell short of a satisfying payoff.

Like Silent House, The Innkeepers takes a simple premise and goes somewhere new with it, but with more success. Another set piece featuring a small cast, an isolated location, and plenty of "don't go in the basement" moments, this one was so fresh and fun that I'm willing to overlook the flaws, the unanswered questions, and the absence of many real honest-to-goodness scares. Nothing terribly new plot-wiseClaire and Luke, bored employees at an inn with only three guests on its last weekend of business, decide to do some amateur ghost-hunting. Through EVPs and strategically placed cameras, they try to capture evidence of the lingering spirit of Madeline O'Malley, a jilted bride who died at the inn under suspicious circumstances and is said to haunt it. Naturally, their efforts stir up forces better left alone.

Fans of Ti West (of 2009's gimmick-that-works The House of the Devil) will recognize his style, with signature humor and a careful attention to setting. I loved how not-creepy the Yankee Pedlar Inn was. It reminded me of times I've visited a so-called "haunted" site, where you expect a pervading sense of dread and full-body apparitions around every corner, but once inside, it's a nice little B&B like any other. Though the inn takes center stage, the movie really belongs to Sara Paxton, who as Claire is one of the most adorable and relatable horror movie heroines I've ever encountered. Her performance makes The Innkeepers is a genuinely funny film. Also worth mentioning is an appearance by Kelly McGillis, whose aging actress-turned-medium will make you feel simply ancient if you grew up on Top Gun.

I don't know if it was necessary to divide the movie into "chapters"it seemed like a bit of forced quirkiness in a movie that didn't need itbut again, I was so taken by Claire's bored front-desk drone that I didn't necessarily mind. The unconventional ending avoids a certain genre cliche that I always feel cheated by, so I was grateful for that. There is an unexpected amount of humor here, but there's also a greater cost to the characters in the end than the lighthearted build-up prepared me for.

Final analysis - I would liken Silent House to a three-legged puppy. Imperfect, but totally lovable.


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