“Silent House” is a challenging horror thriller. It isn’t challenging in terms of thematic meaning, narrative structure, or emotional punch. No, the challenge is in sticking with “Silent House” through its occasional lulls in order to appreciate what the filmmakers are trying to do. The movie was co-directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau. You may remember them from the 2003 psychological horror flick “Open Water”. With this film they go in an entirely different direction and they succeed even though they hit a few speed bumps along the way.
Narratively speaking “Simple House” is pretty simple stuff. In fact, the finished script was only 55 pages and there was concern as to whether or not they had the material for a full movie. They ended up with a compact 87 minute movie but it took some stretching to get that. On the other hand, they employed a clever technique to try to give the movie the illusion of being one long continuous take. Obviously that would’ve been impossible to do yet amazingly they did the entire film in twelve takes. It’s an interesting visual approach and I was surprised at just how well it worked.
“Silent House” has a whopping cast of four (Not counting the two brief visions that we see later in the film). Rising film star Elizabeth Olsen plays Sarah, a young woman who comes to help her father and uncle fix up an old Victorian home in order to resell it. The house is a wreck and the filmmakers take advantage of the poor condition to give us the perfect horror movie atmosphere. For example, all the windows were busted out by a group of mischievous kids so it’s completely boarded up. And there’s no electricity because of rats chewing through the wiring. Dark and closed off – sounds like the perfect horror movie house, doesn’t it?
Sarah’s uncle takes a break and heads into town after a spat with her father. That’s when she starts hearing strange noises upstairs. She convinces her unconcerned father to check it out. With lanterns in hand they search each upstairs room but find nothing. A short time later Sarah hears the sound of her father falling down. It’s here that we get the first of several scenes of Sarah moving room to room in the darkness. The long, fluid, continuous take does create a good sense of tension. But they go to this a few too many times and the sequences can feel long and drawn out. After a search she finds her father knocked out with a severe head wound and quickly realizes that they aren’t alone in the house. This sets up the questions that drive the rest of the movie.
Olsen continues to impress as a young actress. This performance is more about emotion, expression, and body language and the camera never leaves her through the entire film. In perfect Scream Queen fashion she sells her terror through tears, tremors, and some intense close-up shots. It’s really quite convincing. Even when the material drags, it’s fun watching Olsen handle her character and the situation that she’s in. In fact, the entire movie hinges on Olson’s performance. If she doesn’t convince us and persuade us to care about her and her predicament the movie falls apart. Add the difficulty of working in long takes and you can’t help but be impressed with what Olsen’s doing here.
Like many of these films today, “Silent House” tries to throw you a curveball later in the movie. While it’s not completely satisfying it does work reasonably well even though it’s nothing that will catch you completely off guard. Yet, as a whole, this was a movie that I appreciated more after watching it. I did occasionally feel bogged down watching Olsen deliberately creep throughout the house in the darkness. But there were also moments where I was completely wrapped up in the intensity of the scenes. I remember one instance of being so focused on the screen that I jumped out of my chair when my phone vibrated next to me. That’s good stuff.
“Silent House” isn’t a movie that will redefine the horror or psychological thriller genres. In fact, it’s a movie that probably won’t stay with you very long after you see. But I don’t want to overlook or downplay what the film does well. The filmmakers actually pull off their ambitious visual style of storytelling and I can appreciate the work that went into it. Plus we get to enjoy Elizabeth Olsen giving another strong performance. But more importantly the movie works – granted, in a minimal way – but it works.