Silent House has a lot going for it: imaginative direction, an outstanding lead performance and the unique execution of a continuous 88 minute shot. The result is a tense, suspenseful and shocking film. The plot is simple at its core, but rich and complex in its themes and tone. Silent House devotes its entire running time to a brief, but important, span of time of its cast of characters. John (Adam Trese) and his daughter Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) along with John’s brother Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) have returned to their remote country lake house to fix it up for sale. When Sarah begins hearing noises on the upper floors, she begins to fear that they are not alone. What happens next is a combination of a home invasion film, a supernatural ghost tale and a psychological thriller, one that would make Hitchcock proud. The camera focuses on Elizabeth Olsen who is magnetic and haunting and the directors shoot the film in a style that places the audience right alongside the lead actress.
Chris (Open Water) Kentis and Laura Lau take what seems like an impossible feat and execute it with sensational results. Combining elements of found footage (but this is NOT a found footage film) with a single-shot approach, the directors weave the audience into the film. This enhances the paranoia, the fear, the tension – even if the scares are actually few and far between. When the scares to do come, the horror is nearly unbearable. Based on the Uruguayan film La Casa Muda, Lua has crafted a tight, concise Americanized version locking the script physically into the house and emotionally into the mind of Sarah. The camera work that films Sarah around the house throughout her adventure is technically brilliant. It maneuvers around the actress, the obstructions within the house and the lights and shadows that follow Sarah in the darkness.
Silent House takes a found footage approach without using the camera as a character, instead it is the director and/or the audience that is following Sara through the story. It feels very much like the audience is along for the ride, involved, sharing each fear, each reaction. Instead of watching what someone filmed, it feels more like it is what the character is seeing. This creates a unique connection to Sarah. The more she is in peril, the stronger the fear becomes. The focus on her alone seems to sacrifice many of the key elements of the narrative, but the story is her experiences, her reactions, her perceptions. Sarah is the narrative, everything else only colors the details as she encounters each mounting story element.
What makes all of the style and script work is the strong, emotional, vulnerable performance from its star, Elizabeth Olsen. The camera is almost always on her or what she is seeing. Olsen is the strength of the film bringing the same qualities she brought to her break out performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene. With Silent House, Olsen is a rising star, a canvas of emotion, conflict and sorrow. She expresses how fragile the Sarah is without sacrificing any of the character’s strength. She possesses a talent and charisma that engages the audience to trust her, to feel for her and to fear for her.
While Sarah finds the strength to hold back her screams, the audience has far more trouble doing the same. Silent House is an expertly executed tightened rubber-band of tension that reserves the true horror for key scenes in the film. When the time comes for the lights to go out and the scares spring to life, the audience has little choice but to squirm, hide their eyes, lean forward in their seats…and scream. With the directors’ shaping the action and Olsen manipulating the emotion, the result is a suspenseful, tense thriller where what the audience has learned is as frightening as what they have not yet discovered. The soundtrack is sparse, quiet, silently building on the tension. Every sound, every movement, every shadow holds a secret and has something to share.
Silent House is 88 full minutes of white-knuckled suspense and terror. From the opening shot, something is up, and what that may be rests in the mind of the film’s lead character, Sarah. Elizabeth Olsen is bewitching, bringing an innocence and subtle grace to Sarah. But she also brings a little something else, something just beneath the surface, just behind the eyes. She brings a hint of danger, of the unhinged, which keeps the tension ramped up. Silent House’s story has its flaws, some of the pieces don’t always fits precisely together. But that is okay, it’s Sarah’s story, it’s skewed to her perception and perception is not always so neat and tidy. Based on the film’s overwhelming dread, the inventive direction and the stellar performance of its star, Silent House is a success, a taunt thriller sure to fill the theater with shortened breath, gasps and a scream or two.