Monday, March 12, 2012

You Have the Key: Silent House

Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have received super harsh critiques for their new horror flick Silent House starring Elizabeth Olsen as Sarah Murphy. You know that I have to include spoilers so the entire film can be considered, so if you want to see the film before you know the ending, stop reading and go see the film. Why would critics have such an over-reacted response to this film? I think the vast majority of it has to do with denial, not just about child abuse and the damages it causes, but about female sexuality and how sexual experiences and encounters can hurt women.
While the poster says, "Inspired by true events," there is the familiar disclaimer at the end of the film saying that any similarity to actual persons is completely coincidental, or whatever legal language they use. "The silence will kill you," is absolutely right, it will kill you, and her and us and everyone, because if we are not silent about what takes place in this film, healing can start to happen, for them or for us. There's a part when Sarah has heard something upstairs and John and Sarah are walking around; John suddenly opens up a closed door and it violently bumps into Sarah and she complains about it. One of the many "illustrations" the film provides about how John "opened up" Sarah (sexually) and the wounds he caused her. But something like that would be considered a "virtue" by society's standards because women should be sexually mature and experienced, according to the government. In this light, we can see the opening of the door as the "opening of opportunity" to experiment sexually that free birth control offers. This is why there is only "artificial light" throughout the film to see with, because natural light (religious truth) would let us know how obviously wrong these things are, but artificial light (the truth manufactured by society) doesn't make it seem so bad.
It would be completely reasonable for someone to say, "But a father sexually abusing his daughter and daughter's friend while his brother is watching, is an extreme situation that would damage anyone," and they would be right; however, this is in a long line of films attempting to curtail our sexual practices (which, of course, I think is a good thing): Gone, This Means War, Shame, Immortals, all examine how our identity is destroyed by sex (and I mean sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage) and the damage Sarah has received as a result (when the film opens, her ex-boyfriend is trying to get back with her and she doesn't want to be involved with him, so we can deduce that she has a real problem forming relationships) isn't just about Sarah, but about all women.
The three main characters: Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), John Murphy (Sarah's dad, Adam Trese) and Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen). They have decided to sell the lakeside home so they are working at rebuilding and remodeling. In this scene above, Peter has discovered mold he has pointed out to John growing inside the walls. It's not until the very end of the film that we see the whole exterior of the house and it has, including the basement, four levels: the main level, an upstairs and an upper-upstairs (a third floor) where there is a pool table that plays an important role in the film. This is one of the great parts of the film, because Peter has found the mold and leads John back to it, wanting John to see it, instead of just telling him about it, which, we find out, is what happened with Sarah's sexual abuse: John wanted Peter to see it. Just as John and Peter take Polaroid shots of the mold growing in the walls of the house, so they took Polaroid shots of Sarah and Sophia when John was abusing them. When Peter shows Sarah and John the mold growing inside the walls, Sarah asks, "Can't we just cover it up?" because that is exactly what Sarah has been doing her whole life, "covering it up."
Not all women have been sexually abused, especially by their fathers, however, if we take this symbolically, the way the entire film is meant to be read, then we can understand why liberals would be upset with it: it's the founding father and Uncle Sam that have abused women by moving them into a "man's role" and we can trace this back to the liquor bottles and the urinal in the bathroom (by founding father I don't mean Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, etc., rather, the legislative body making decisions about laws and changing social norms as a result of those laws). When Sarah was little, and she wore a frilly pink and white tutu, her father would get her drunk and molest her. We see a horrifying image of a little girl (which, as the film goes on, you deduce is Sarah herself) playing in a bathtub with liquor bottles and the water turning to blood; then a urinal that has been put up high on the wall and blood starts coming out of that. On the one level, women have become "drunk on power and wealth" as a result of being in the work place and don't want to give that up (and it dampens the horror of what has been done to us) but the blood means that Sarah's father broke her hymen and that is the blood from losing her virginity.
The green jacket Sarah wears, like an army jacket, ties in with the "stalker" because that's what color he is covered in. Sarah wears purple stalkings/leggings, because purple is the color of suffering and our legs symbolize how we "stand" in relation to others and ourselves, our will (because the feet and legs are attached) her outfit reveals to us how suffering has characterized her life. The orange scarf she wears, a symbol of "vitality" or life, is around her neck and means that what is guiding her (the neck is like a "yoke" or a collar, what it is that leads us) is a desire for life she doesn't have, maybe giving that ex-boyfriend a second chance that she hasn't been able to before now. But there is a part of her leggings hidden by her skirt, and that is what this is really all about, the suffering that has come to her from what should have remained hidden but what was exposed (under her skirt being exposed).
The liquor bottles refers to women behaving like men and taking on the morals of men and how they drink (the word "slut," technically means a woman with the morals of a man), but also, the workplace and women moving into the "sphere of men" represented by the urinal (in the home, there are toilets, and, granted, there are some urinals in "man caves," but for the most part urinals are only found in men's restrooms in public places such as work). Another aspect of women being "raped" by the social norms pushing them further than they want to go is the "stalker," the man covered in mud that acts as Sarah's psychoanalytic double.
The directors make excellent use of light and reflections, of incorporating the things one would naturally find in an old house and instilling them with deep meaning. But they also do a great job of maintaining an ambiguity, which is essential for this kind of film, for two reasons: one, we can never fully enter into the mind or the pain of Sarah, we can only glimpse it, and secondly, by only implying certain things, it causes the audience to "fill in" with their own experience the gaps, thereby causing the audience to invest themselves in Sarah's struggle. This is the room wherein Sarah "finds" her father, bound and tied with a gash in his head (there is a red and white gingham curtain in the middle of this shot and in trying to take that down, John's body falls out on top of Sarah). Why this room? Look at how things are "covered up" and there's a ridiculous number of lamps with no shades (nothing to block out "the light of truth" from coming through). Because there is no power in the house, there is no way o f "turning the light on," and we could liken this to Gone, and the lack of religious foundation that film had is symbolized as a loss of power in Silent House: if Gone and Silent House had the power of rhetoric provided by the Church, that would be the "power" to illuminate the lamps and the truth of what is happening to women.
The only time we get a clear view of the "stalker," (who, in the beginning of the film, you think is going to be an actual man but isn't) is towards the end when he stands in clear view with the little girl beside him (i.e., a projection of Sarah as a little girl) and his arm is around her, as if protecting her. Because Sarah hasn't developed normally, she is both stuck as being a little girl and being abnormally masculine because she has to defend herself (in the typical horror film vein, at one point, Sarah takes a large kitchen knife which symbolizes a phallus she has armed herself with). The "stalker" appears to be covered in a greenish mud, reflective of the "dirt of sin" with which Sarah's abuse has soiled her and the jacket she wears in the early part of the show. What's interesting about the "stalker" is Sarah's attempts at escaping from him, because that's exactly how it is psychologically. When she hides under the table, just as she hid from her father when she was little, the "stalker" grabs her leg, just as her father did, and pulls her out; the "stalker" isn't stalking Sarah, but her father, and wants Sarah to "join him," to be united with him in carrying out justice against him, but she's too afraid because she has tried to forget and has forgotten about that part of herself that now seems threatening.
When Sophia briefly stops by in the beginning of the film, she mentions to Sarah, "You always had such great hair," because hair is symbolic of our thoughts (the more messed up our hair, the more messed up our thoughts) we can read into this that Sarah was always good at keeping the abuse and what it was doing to her out of her mind; when Sophia tries to get Sarah to remember who she is, that they grew up playing together, Sarah tells her, "I have holes in my mind," a line Sophia will repeat to Sarah later; but Sarah doesn't have holes, she has remembered everything, she has just buried it, and that's why Sarah has to go into the basement, where we (symbolically) bury things and why the "stalker" is covered in med: he is what has become "unburied."
So what triggers the memories?
Two things, first of all, Sophia, and we know that Sophia showing up and reminding Sarah of "playing when they were little" is a trigger because Sophia is on a bike, and the bike means that Sophia herself is a "vehicle" for how the events unfold. The second trigger for Sarah to start remembering all these things that happened to her when she was little is going through her things that she says were her "cousins'" but actually belonged to herself. Just seeing the pink and white tutu and the little red lunch box is enough to make her "lose" her grip on her memories and make her want to do to her father what he did to her: kill him.
Like all great horror films, (The Shining, Scream, Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, etc.) the house is an actual character, a symbol for the soul (regrettably, this was the best shot I could find of it) but we don't see the house until the very last shot of the film, because, until the very last shot of the film, we really don't see Sarah as she is. All the different levels of the house mirrors the different levels of  Sarah's mind and soul and, just as the house is silent, because a house can't talk, so Sarah has bee silent about everything that happened to her. "Squatters" had been breaking into the house and using it, and, because this is a psychological film, we know that "squatters" are really casual sexual relationships with men who never "moved in" with Sarah and bought the property, so to speak, she is the house and she has had a long history of one-night stands. But all the windows are boarded up because "they were broken" so, since windows symbolize reflection" and self-knowledge, we know Sarah has not been able to fulfill herself as a person because her ability to "reflect" on her life was smashed ("broken," just like her hymen).
Yes, that is what daddy did to his little girl, killed her.  Psychologically, when we hurt someone, verbally or physically, it's because, in our own mind, that is the proper measure of justice they deserve for how badly they have hurt us (if you shove me, I will shove you equally). Because John Murphy didn't want anyone to see what he was doing to her, Sarah (as the "stalker") gouges out John's eye (this happens when he falls on top of her but his eye is in place later when she finds him again). She puts duct tape over his mouth because he always told her to "be quiet" or she would wake up mommy. She bound his hands because Sarah was "powerless" to do anything to save herself (arms and hands symbolize our strength).
This is the back door, which had a ton of junk covering it up. When something happens, such as a key doesn't work, they can't find the key, it's jammed, that is all psychological for what is really happening inside the main character. When Sophia shows up the second time, she hands Sarah a key and Sarah says, that's not the key to the door, and Sophia tells her it's the key to the way out. It just so happens it opens the little red lunchbox Sarah found earlier; when she threw away the pink tutu and Barbie dolls, she found the lunch box, tried to get it open and couldn't. Red, if you will remember, is the color of the appetites, and the lunch box of course refers to the appetites because it holds food. What the lunchbox holds that Sarah discovers when she opens it are Polaroids of herself (and Sophia?) when they were little being abused by Sarah's father. We had seen "piles" of Polaroids before (John picks up several little piles just a moment before he "disappears" and then Peter finds some before he gets shot and puts them in the front of his pants). When Sarah goes through the pictures, she finally remembers and everything comes into place for her that she was the toy for her father's appetites. Why Polaroids? Because they didn't need to be developed, so no one would know what John was doing to her.
Like we have discussed in Scream, stairways symbolize our thoughts, so when someone is going up, that symbolizes a "higher plane of thought" and when they are going down, that shows a digression into the lower passions (please see Decoding the Decoding: Scream for more). In the short clip below, Sarah has done what every heroine of a horror film has to do: she goes into the basement. When she's down there, she finds a large back room with a bed recently slept in that looks like a "squatter" has been living there. What that room really symbolizes, is the place where "the stalker" has been hidden within Sarah, waiting to be let out, just as she is "let out" in this scene:
Why is there always a problem getting the key into the lock?
Because the act closely resembles the sexual act, and just the symbolic resemblance of it will make a woman who has been sexually abused start to get nervous. In this scene, we could say that this simple "re-enactment" is the first break-through Sarah experiences up to this point and that's why she's able to pick the key up and successfully get the door open; her "falling" outside, however, indicates that she is the one feeling guilty for what happened, and her will is weak to go on and resolve the issue. As she's running to get away, this is the first time she sees "the little girl" standing behind her that she doesn't recognize as herself  because she has blocked out all of her child hood. This validates for us viewing the film as a pyschological document (snapshots of Sarah's mind, like the snapshots of the Polaroids) that all the events are about Sarah as a child and what happened to her.
Sarah in Uncle Peter's car as he is inside looking for John and Sarah is supposedly locked into the car, but the lift-hatch is still open. Please note how messed up her hair is in this scene? She has made an attempt to "pull it back," to keep it together (her thoughts, that is) but memories keep "escaping" just like the loose strands of her hair.
When Sarah finds Uncle Peter driving back towards the house, and stops his car, she wants to get away but Peter wants to go in and get John. When Sarah tries to tell Peter what happened, Peter automatically blames it on "squatters," which is interesting, because that means "someone who shouldn't be there," and that means Peter unconsciously knows he and John are being paid back for what they did to Sarah when she was little.
Peter gets out a gun that Sarah will use on him.
After Peter has left Sarah in the car, she realizes that the doors aren't locked, which is an interesting reversal from when she was in the house (and the doors were locked and she couldn't get out). Being in Uncle Peter's car, and finding out that John made Peter watch (and that John is really bossy anyway) is, like Sophia, making Peter a "vehicle" that Sarah slowly realizes in her mind: John was using Sarah to "show up" Peter and making Peter watch him abuse Sarah enforced John's dominance over them both.
When we first meet Sophia, she reminds Sarah that they used to "play together" when they were little; when John would play with (molest) Sarah, it was on a pool table (a game table) and tell her "We're just going to play a little game." When Sarah was little, Uncle Peter would "play" like he was going to get her. While most children play hide and seek, Sarah actually hid from her father, who would pull her by the legs out from under whatever she was hiding from. If we note Sarah's habits of hiding from the stalker in the film, she always gets "under"something (instead of behind or within) meaning she is "hiding" that which is under herself, i.e., her sexual organs, because that's what her father is going to go for and that she wants to keep from him. It also invokes the "proper" forms of play and games that kids should have growing up and Sarah didn't.
When Sarah realizes the car lift in the back is still open, it means she realizes the situation isn't fully resolved, there is an "open issue" which still needs to be resolved; because she sees that the car lift has indeed been lifted via the "rear view mirror," we know that in "reflecting," Sarah has realized Peter is part of her "baggage" too (the trunk of a car usually represents history or baggage because that's what is usually stored there, bags). Knowing that the "stalker" is the one lifting the back lift and then facing her in the front windshield clearly demonstrates how different parts of Sarah's mind, which have been severely oppressed all her life, are suddenly out of her control and guiding her to "execute" justice to preserve herself and her future.
It takes them awhile to find John, but they find this pool of blood first. Why? Again, it has to do with the trauma Sarah experienced when she was little seeing her own blood and her father causing her to bleed.
In conclusion, Silent House is an excellent example of psychological horror, using all the best techniques from the best films, and building upon that (more than one reviewer has noted the excellent use made of sound for aiding the narrative). Why are critics so hard on it? It's about the sexual abuse all women have endured (generally speaking) because of American society (and it doesn't take looking so far to get examples of it in today's headlines). Instead of being a "fun twist," it's a serious indictment about those who should have protected women (John Murphy) and exposed them to seriously damaging sexuality that hasn't been healed as well as those who, like Uncle Peter, stood by and watched without doing anything to protect women.
One last item which was a really well-thought out: when Sarah sees the little girl (i.e., herself as a little girl) in the tub playing with the liquor bottles and blood starts going everywhere, a hammer (the one John Murphy used earlier to "find the mold" hiding within the walls) bursts through a brown wall that has images of beautiful women on it (they looked like Gibson Girls) and that act of violence--the hammer bursting through the image of the women--is the action of rape, the unwanted sexual act and, just as the hammer destroys the wall and the wallpaper, so too, does it destroy women and the men who do it.