I have a feeling that a lot of people are going to peg Silent House as the latest horror film to engage in gimmickry through its apparent adoption of the found footage conceit, and they’ll be completely incorrect to do so. In the first place, it’s not a found footage film whatsoever. Marketing for the picture seems geared toward presenting it as
another entry in that engorged horror sub-genre, and maybe the very presence of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau– the duo behind 2003’s effectively nerve-wracking Open Water— hints at a shared ancestry with the likes of Paranormal Activity. But Silent House is closer to movies like The Strangers, and certain contemporary French gore fests, and while it isn’t perfect it’s nevertheless head and shoulders above what passes for mainstream modern horror.
For one thing, its much-touted angle– the film is shot in one uninterrupted take– isn’t really an angle at all. Sure, “88 minutes of real fear captured in real time” might read like salesmanship, but that conceit represents one of the film’s strongest features. If Silent House just used that central approach of eschewing cutting between scenes for no other reason than sheer cool factor, I’d still want to applaud Kentis and Lau for their moxie; after all, if it’s a challenge to shoot an 18 minute sustained shot, then surely it’s even more of a challenge to stick to that restriction for the length of an entire feature length presentation. But all chutzpah aside, that approach is used as more than just a hook.
Silent House concerns itself with Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who winds up trapped in her family’s summer house when she, her father (Adam Trese), and her uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) get together in an attempt to affect repairs on the damaged old cottage before moving out. The place is a dump; the windows are boarded up, and mold has taken up permanent residence in the walls. Left to her own devices, Sarah is treated to a rhapsody comprised of every creepy noise in the repertoire of atmospheric horror; eventually, she’s left utterly alone and fending for herself against an unknown assailant. And, perhaps, something more spectral and shadowy.
I say “perhaps” for reasons that will become obvious once you see the film for yourself. Anything more would give too much away, and besides, the truth is far more complex*. Silent House isn’t a movie that’s worth discussing for its climactic reveal alone, though. Its best attributes lie in the finesse exhibited in capturing an hour and a half of footage without cutting away from its anchor, Olsen, who herself comprises Silent House‘s other major talking point.
It’s hard to know where to start– with Olsen’s performance or with Kentis’s and Lau’s direction– because in the end, Silent House is really about how their respective contributions meld together to organically generate tension and anxiety for most of the film’s short running time. A great deal of praise should be accorded the crew, whose impressive efforts made Silent House possible. I wonder how many takes were needed to get everything just right; something as simple as an errant boom mic or an unsuppressed sneeze could not only ruin a take but also set the entire project back to square one. One can only imagine the amount of coordination, timing, practice, and patience required to execute a production with such demanding technical requirements. All of that work would be for naught if the results didn’t satisfy aesthetically, but the film marries its rigorous mechanics with hauntingly claustrophobic and unnerving photography while boasting a solid sense of cinematic geography. That house sure does have a ton of doors and stairways and turns– it’s architectural Swiss cheese– but we’re never allowed to feel lost.
Which brings us to Olsen. Olsen earned acclaim last year in Martha Marcy May Marlene, her first starring role. While I haven’t seen that film myself, she’s absolutely spectacular here, and if Silent House’s crew do one thing perfectly, they showcase her with rigid dedication and never for a second disrespect the emotional investment she makes into Sarah’s ordeal. Olsen sends Sarah on a downward trajectory, unraveling slowly but surely as the narrative runs its course and we eventually learn some pretty heavy stuff about the house and Sarah herself; all the while she runs, hides, and either covers her mouth or bites her hand to keep from crying out and signaling the man stalking her of her whereabouts. Horror isn’t normally associated with acting of this caliber, but Olsen is fragile and vulnerable and more than convincingly terrified for her life– powerful stuff from a gifted young actress with a promising career.
None of this is to say that Silent House is flawless, but speaking to the film’s one significant stumbling block is impossible to do in a review without spoiling the entire climax. Even using other films as frames of reference is out of bounds; naming the movie referred to in the opening paragraph would be as good as giving the twist away. Twists are not inherently negative cinematic devices, but what we learn about Sarah and her past nearly undermines all of the excellent work done by both Olsen and the crew throughout the rest of the picture– even though the filmmakers’ thematic intentions are decidedly good. I imagine that for many, the sheer shock value of Silent House‘s climax will override its tricky logistics; in the scare department, the film delivers. For others, it’s so well-made and so superbly acted by Olsen that the contrivances of the ending truly do represent the film’s only standout weakness. If nothing else, the daring, ballsy approach to storytelling that Kentis and Lau employ here goes so firmly against the mainstream grain that it’s difficult not to applaud it for its grit alone.