Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is returning to the house where she spent her summers growing up for the first time in years. She’s in the company of her father John (Adam Trese) and her Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens). The three of them are in the process of cleaning out and refurbishing the long-forgotten old place in an attempt to sell it and get a little money out of it, since nobody in the family really uses it anymore. The house is in pretty bad shape, so the refurb has been taking longer than expected.
However, Sarah’s not long for this work. She’s just going to be there a few days to pack up some of her things from childhood, and then she’ll be moving on with her life.
When an old friend named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) pays her a visit, the two make plans to hang out. Since Sarah’s current residence doesn’t get cell reception and has no phone lines, Sophia promises to stop by later. That is fine and dandy until Sarah’s uncle leaves, Sarah’s father gets seriously injured, and Sarah finds herself trapped in the silent house, trying desperately to escape from someone… or something… that doesn’t seem to want her to leave.
Elizabeth Olsen is an incredible actress. For the majority of Silent House, she’s on screen by herself, either wandering through the darkness with a lamp while searching for her father or running through the darkness with a flashlight trying to escape. At several points in the movie, she is hiding behind something or under something, quaking with fear and making some of the best scared faces I think I’ve ever seen.
You know the face you make when you’re so upset you can’t even breathe, even though your mouth is open and you’re really trying to hiccup out another cry? Well, she pulls that off while looking legitimately terrified. She’s captivating, and her presence is necessary to keep the movie suspenseful when no one else is there (rather, we don’t see anyone there, just hear them).
Silent House is incredibly tense for the first three quarters of its run time, and a lot of this has to do with the brilliant way the movie itself is filmed. There’s only one camera operator, and as far as I can tell, no visible cuts. The movie claims to have been shot without cuts, with segments shot in ten-minute sections then married together (though there are lots of places where you could hide cuts if you had to).
The center of the action, at all times, is Elizabeth Olsen, and the camera pursues her throughout filming. It puts the audience in her shoes, as if we are running through the house with her, and it is unrelenting and quite inventive, even if it does get a bit too shaky for my stomach at times.
The credit for this skill goes to the directing team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who did the brilliant Open Water. Much like Open Water, Silent House makes great use of the aforementioned quiet abode of its title, which is a massive, labyrinthine structure set on the side of a lake out in the middle of nowhere. The house is dark on the inside thanks to a lack of electricity and boarded-up windows, and it is full of ominous piles of boxes, renovation materials, and an endless supply of closets, bathrooms, doors, and other assorted nooks and crannies in which to hide (or for trouble to hide in).
It’s a great setting, and Kentis and Lau use every inch of it, while still managing to find interesting angles to shoot from. (A particular stand-out is a shot through the crack between a door and the door frame on the hinges side, which is blocked perfectly to give the audience a peeper’s-eye view.)
Lau also wrote the script, which she adapted from the Uruguayan movie The Silent House, by director Gustavo Hernandez. That movie is purported to be based on a true story, which makes the movie’s turn at the end a bit less odd (though it is still unexpected). The shift in tone is abrupt, though Olsen handles it well. The dialogue is appropriately sparse, but the familiar relationship between Sarah’s father and uncle is well-handled in limited interaction.
Silent House evokes tension on a very physical level for the majority of its first half, but it never really provides the sort of laugh needed to break that tension, either through a legitimate jump or through a closet cat scare.
Still, for most of its run, it works as a suspense thriller, though I’d like for a little less shaking camera and a little less randomness towards the end of the film. Not without its flaws, Silent House is worth watching if only for the stellar performance of Elizabeth Olsen, who proves that her turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene is more than a fluke.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan got more laughs out of Silent House than he did out of A Thousand Words. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.