Many years ago, when I was a child sitting around a camp fire at Camp Maluhia, our camp counselor told us the tale of Guava Man, a short, child-munching monster that would eat kids who slept on the bottom bunk. With a sigh of relief, I realized I was sleeping on the top bunk in my cabin and completely safe, while my buddy on the bottom bunk was going to be a late night snack. But wait, said our camp counselor, there’s more! Turns out there’s another monster who lives in the camp, known as Mango Man, who is so tall, he only eats kids on the top bunk! Well, I was terrified and my buddies and I slept in shifts that night, keeping an eye out for two abnormally sized monsters named after delicious fruits. The next morning, we realized we’d been had by one of the most ridiculous camp fire ghost stories ever.
I thought of this while driving home from Silent House, a ghost story that, the more you talk about it, falls completely apart. It stars Elizabeth Olsen, who gave an extraordinary debut performance last year in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Here she plays Sarah, a young woman assisting her father and uncle as they clean up her childhood home, which is up for sale.
We don’t know all the details at first but notice that even though it’s daytime, it’s dark inside the large house since all the windows are covered up. Every door leading outside has a lock on it, as if the house were conspiring to keep visitors inside. Once Sarah loses sight of her father, deep into the darkness and feeling displaced, she starts to hear strange noises…
The film is only 88 minutes and has supposedly been filmed in one continuous take, a single shot held for the entire film. I doubt the authenticity of that claim, as there are many moments that could have been spliced into other segments and digital effects can make any optical illusion possible. However, it certainly looks like it was filmed in one take and, for at least the first hour, works as a tense, claustrophobic, well staged exercise. Very little happens at first, just the building of anticipation and suspense as Sarah searches every dark room with a lantern. Yet, not only are we on the edge of our seats, ready for a big scare, but Olsen is so gorgeous that I never minded how the camera keeps her close and the focus of every scene.
There’s no loud music to make us jump, but a quiet, brooding score that never manipulates, no on-camera violence and very little blood. A sequence with a flashing Polaroid is spooky and Olsen ably carries the film, acting scared to the point of near-hyperventilation almost the whole time.
The problem is the ending–a big disappointment. Neither ambiguous nor worthy of a good Shyamalan thriller (and there aren’t many of those), the solution to the puzzle is a disaster. It’s overly familiar, ugly instead of scary and undermines the entire movie. The more you think about it, the mystery holding the house just makes no sense.
Like a joke with a hilarious set-up but a groaner of a punch line, you’ll walk away hating yourself for getting so worked up over such a meager payoff. The film’s poster says it was “Inspired By True Events.”
But so was The Legend of Guava Man.
Rated R/88 Min.