Silent House (2011)

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Seldom have I had such a thoughtful and productive conversation while sitting through a “haunted house” movie. For this I should thank my brainy friend Kaja Katamay who chose to watch it with me. Since there’s very little dialog, we were free to analyze, theorize, and hypothesize all through Silent House and not miss a word. (And no one told us to STFU!) Our observations about the characters proved uncannily accurate: I suggested that Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen, fetching younger sister of Ashley and Mary-Kate) behaved as though she’d suffered a traumatic episode, and Kaja suspected the supporting cast of treachery. Right on both counts.

Nutshell: Sarah meets up with her father, John (Adam Trese), and Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) to help fix up and hopefully flip the family summer house. Things don’t work out quite as well they do on Property Brothers, as Sarah becomes increasingly anxious while wandering through the rambling hacienda. Just so you know: the house is completely boarded up to discourage vandals. There’s no electricity. Cell phones no workee.

Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau—who previously helmed Open Water, chose to film Silent House in real time as if it were one continuous shot. It wasn’t, but this audacious gambit definitely adds a sense of first-person urgency to the events as they unfold, especially as Sarah gets closer and closer to the heart of darkness. By the way, Elizabeth Olsen acquits herself quite well in what must have been a demanding role. As Sarah, she’s a 21st century upgrade to the Scream Queen: she’s a victim who tries ineffectually to keep her fear buried in the sub-conscious, until she has no choice but to fight back—and emerge triumphant.

Devil (2010)

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I must confess that I sort of missed the boat on why exactly M. Night Shyamalan is now considered such a lame-o. I didn’t see Lady in the Water and I started to watch The Happening but bailed out for some mundane reason unrelated to the quality of the film. So what happened? Did these two movies suck so unbelievably badly that they reduced the Shyamalan brand to a punch line? And now I’ve built up such a load of anxiety that I can’t bring myself to watch them.

I didn’t realize Devil was co-written and produced by Shyamalan or I might have steered clear, but I’m reasonably glad that I didn’t. Sure, it’s rife with his trademark glib spirituality (or Old Testament as folklore) with a side dish of “you just gotta believe sometimes,” yet even so, it’s a modestly effective thriller about five people trapped in an elevator—one of whom might be Lucifer. Taking place in a thoroughly modern skyscraper in a thoroughly modern metropolis, five seemingly unrelated people get into an elevator car and become trapped between floors. A dramatic storm sent by obviously sinister forces moves into the area and messes with the electrical system, so getting them out proves complicated. Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is the cop on the scene who attempts to organize their rescue, with some help from Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), a particularly devout building security guard who doesn’t like what he’s seeing on the video monitor from the stranded elevator.

Devil offers legitimately frightening scenes as the trapped characters begin freaking out from the steadily increasing paranoia, claustrophobia, and growing suspicion that one among them is not what he/she seems. More than just a morality play (although there are similarities), the story hangs on a basic Twilight Zone premise that Satan is real, and that from time to time he likes to go out amongst the people in the guise of a particularly unpleasant collections agent. And if you’re on his list, your options are very limited.