Of Silence (2014) – Directed by Jeremiah Sayys – Starring Jeremiah Sayys, Masiela Lusha, Matthew Lawrence, Najarra Townsend, Ashlee Gillespie, Suzanne Ford, Paul Cuneo and Muse Watson.
It bears mentioning before I get into my reaction to OF SILENCE that I watched the film after being contacted by the Producer, Writer, Director, and Star Jeremiah Sayys. I feel it’s important to mention this because I write these reviews for fun (and there’s 800 or so of them at this point, so I clearly enjoy doing it) – which is to say, I’m not a paid professional critic, I don’t make any money off this site, and I don’t get invited to film festivals and screenings and no one reimburses me for my theater ticket or popcorn, so on the rare occasion when I don’t have to pay to see a movie, I think it’s the right thing to let you know that.
Unless it’s because I was on a date, then it’s none of your business.
When I was in my early 20s, I would occasionally hear voices as I was falling asleep. These voices wouldn’t be clear or conversational, but rather a wave of swirling fragments. If I concentrated on one of them and isolated it, I would get a sensation not unlike falling towards the words, or falling into understanding. Once I caught a fragment and made sense of it, falling turned to a sensations of being pulled somewhere, and I would make a conscious decision to pull back.
Now, let’s not be dramatic. I never thought I was going mad or was possessed or was somehow pulling on a string that would cause my understanding of the universe to unravel, and indeed, what I was experiencing was most likely a hypnagogic hallucination. Hypnagogia refers to the liminal state you experience between being awake and being asleep, often called a “waking dream.” When I was in my teens, I would often experience the other side of hypnagogia, hypnopompic, which is the liminal state between sleep and wakefulness. I would have these rather amazing lucid dreams (my favorite involved Rowlf from the Muppets) on a fairly regular basis.
I bring this up because while OF SILENCE does not portray hypnogogia, it does offer the same kind of swirling voices that I would experience, and it does so very effectively. The film focuses on Colby (Jeremiah Sayys), a former scuba diver dealing with the violent murder of his wife, Annabelle (Masiela Lusha). The film positions Colby’s journey on two arcs moving in opposite directions: to cope with his wife’s death, he withdraws into himself, but as he’s doing this, he’s also becoming more aware of some particularly creepy sounds coming from the house around him. The more he shuts himself off from the natural world, the more he is forced to acknowledge the supernatural. But as Colby starts listening to them, the louder they become.
Sound is OF SILENCE’s calling card. From the swirling voices to a creepy, monstrous snarl/growl combo, OF SILENCE relies on sound, more than it does shots of creepy shadows, to raise the level of terror. Showing walls or floors or ceilings from Colby’s perspective as he looks for the source of the snarling creates an effective sense of dread – is the monster in the house? Is the house a conduit? Or is the monster actually the house? Colby hears both “We Can See You” and what sounds like “You Can Save Us,” and there’s some question as to whether Colby is an intended victim, prospective hero, or both.
There aren’t many easy answers in OF SILENCE and it’s to the film’s credit that it’s willing to let you be confused rather than spoon-feeding you the exact answer. As a writer, I know that’s a tricky line to walk because you have to be willing to live with some audience members thinking you did a bad job because they weren’t able to figure out your intent. Of course, this narrative method doesn’t automatically exclude you from actually doing a bad job, but in OF SILENCE, Sayys uses this technique to the film’s advantage. When I was confused by what was going on, it largely intrigued me rather than repelled me. Even at the end of the film, Sayys doesn’t make the resolution revelatory nearly as much as he allows it to open up additional questions (though it does seem to give credence to the idea of the house as a conduit between worlds).
The film does contain a few moments that don’t work so well for me. The main problem is the pacing – while it’s necessary to keep the first half of the film slow in order to enforce the chosen style and allow time for the tension to mount, the opening 45 minutes do drag, a bit. The film brings Colby’s family in for a visit, and they all get a turn having a one-on-one conversation with him. Their individual attempts to reach him serve to highlight the disconnect he’s feeling from them, but it also reveals that they all their own lives and concerns, too. His father (Muse Watson) is concerned with Colby getting back to work. Their mother (Suzanne Ford) lets Colby know they’ll do what they can to help him with his bills, but they’ve had unexpected medical expenses, which we soon after learn is because Colby’s brother, Brian (Matthew Lawrence) has cancer.
While the one-on-one moments slow the narrative down, they also reinforce the idea that this is a family that prefers to handle matters personally, rather than as a group. When they’re all together, the emphasis is on trying to have a good time (except for Colby, who sits through the birthday celebration in a near catatonic state), but when they get Colby alone, it’s time to get real. His sister, Haley (Ashley Gillespie), is the most willing to make an effort to bring Colby out of his funk, but all this gets her is attacked later in the movie.
It’s eventually revealed that Colby left his wife when he learned he could not get her pregnant, and thus felt as if he were failing her. OF SILENCE does suggest that some of Colby’s problems stem from a time when he dove too deep underwater and did some damage to his ear, but this moment with his wife (which we see in flashback) seems to indicate that he had his own personal demons before he could start hearing the voices and snarling inside the house. (This moment with his wife almost certainly takes place after his underwater accident, but it does not appear he could hear the voices until after his wife’s death and his return to the house.)
I really like how OF SILENCE displays Colby’s terror as almost therapeutic. In truth, he often seems to welcome what’s happening as he’s the kind of guy who goes to investigate creepy noises instead of running away from them. I’m kind of torn on this approach – on the one hand, it’s nice to watch a horror movie (not my favorite genre) that doesn’t rely on screaming girls in tight t-shirts to convey a sense of unease, but the film could use a little more energy in the first half than what it gives us. I’m all for playing against audience expectations and wanting to make a smarter horror movie, but horror stories about monsters in the house always end the same way – with a confrontation with the monster in the house. I think the film needed someone to be more openly emotional about what was happening, and I think if the film’s flashbacks had shown Annabelle emotional out over hearing voices instead of the inability for her and Colby to conceive, the film would have enhanced the scare factor by a few points. Certainly, doing this would have made the story a bit more formulaic and a bit less driven by realistic concerns (OF SILENCE is as interested in the human conflicts as the supernatural ones), but this movie focuses plenty of Colby’s character and could do with a bit more jump for your rump.
(I don’t know about those last four words but they appeared from the end of my fingers and I didn’t have the heart to delete them.)
On the subject of formula vs. uniqueness, take a look at the two posters in this reaction. The big one up top is the poster image I was sent by Sayys and the one right here on the left is the poster you find at the movie’s IMDB page. The “Silence” poster looks like it belongs at your local multiplex, made to be consumed by high school kids and starring a bevy of young, attractive actors currently starring on a CW drama. We have a young woman, covered in blood, standing at the top of a flight of stairs leading down into a basement, and all those shadowy hands reaching for her. It’s a good poster but it’s not representative of the movie nearly as much as the poster that features Sayys standing in the foreground looking off to the side, and his own face in the background, looking out at us.
That’s the movie OF SILENCE actually is, but unfortunately, the top poster is probably the movie more people would watch. Gore and sex sells in the horror genre, and OF SILENCE doesn’t offer much of either. I appreciate that; the first thing I did when Sayys contacted me to review the movie was to make sure it wasn’t torture porn because if it was, I would have passed. Take note, organizers of torture porn festivals …) What it does offer, however, is a solid, psychologically-driven story. I wish it moved a bit faster and contained a bit more thrills (integrating the two halves would have been nice – perhaps by having a family member each day drop by instead of burning through them all in one visit), but the slow-moving first half is followed up by a satisfying second half. I love how the movie uses Colby’s unwillingness or inability to pay his bills as the reason why it’s always dark in the house, just as I love that it’s Haley who figures this out without being told. Sayys uses the dark to great effect. Between the use of darkness and sound, OF SILENCE really shines.
As longtime readers of the Anxiety know, I have a fondness for smartly made, low budget films, and OF SILENCE qualifies. Way back when I was in high school and thinking about pursuing a career in the film industry, OF SILENCE is the kind of film my friends and I might have watched a dozen times as we discussed what worked and didn’t, as we tried to figure out what we would have done differently. OF SILENCE is an admirable effort and ultimately a rewarding experience.