By Drew Taylor | The Playlist March 6, 2012 at 10:01AM
"Silent House" has a nifty hook – it's being billed as a "real time" (probably not) horror movie filled in a single, unified shot (again: there are eight separate shots, but that's still pretty impressive). In a way it's a stylish extension of the current found footage craze, as we're locked into a single character (played, with believable intensity, by Elizabeth Olsen) as she scurries around a dilapidated lake house, but it also allows for far more flowery filmmaking (particularly in the film's freaky final act). What makes "Silent House" such an exceptional little genre treat is that, locked into a very rigid technical framework, filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, have gone out of their way to make a genuinely scary, occasionally surreal, intensely imaginative thriller. What could have simply been an exercise ends up being truly engaging.
Based on a cheapie 2010 Uruguayan film of the same name (and similar conceit), "Silent House" has the kind of simple horror movie plot that is almost eye-rolling in its familiarity. Olsen plays Sarah, a young girl who goes with her father John (Adam Trese) to help fix up an old family lake house for sale. Her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) is also lending a hand. Since the house has been largely unattended-to, kids have broken windows and mold has taken hold in the walls and ceilings. Sarah runs into a childhood friend Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross, elegantly creepy) who reminds her that they used to play dress up. Sophia pries our only biographical details out of Sarah – she didn't go to college, seems fairly listless, and doesn't remember much from her dress up days.
There's no electricity in the house (John blames rats) and since most of the windows are boarded up, everyone has to walk around with giant battery-powered lanterns, even though the movie begins in the still-sunny afternoon. It's a great touch, and we're keenly aware of the different light sources throughout – candles, a floodlight attached to a generator, flashlights. Shortly after the basics are set up (keep in mind this movie is a swift 85-minutes long), Sarah hears a noise upstairs, and after her father goes to investigate, she hears a thud, and, well, is sent scrambling for her life.
That's pretty much all there is in terms of plot, but it doesn't really matter. For much of the film's running time, we're kept at an almost unbearable level of suspense. Part of this has to do with the immediacy of the one-take concept – all the reveals are handled subtly and in-camera (a figure is seen in the deep background, less a discernable person and more a threatening haze), there is no cutting away, and very little cheating, but most of it has to do with Olsen, who maintains a level of frantic determination throughout the whole thing. Yes, she screams and cries a lot, but she's also got goals and isn't afraid to take risks. As far as scream queens go, she's got the lungs for it. She's also got the heart and the strength.
For a long time the movie seems as it might be a toothy, stylistically emboldened version of the "home invasion" horror thriller, something along the lines of "The Strangers" or Alexandre Aja's "High Tension." But as the movie progresses, things slip away from the strict reality of the situation, with the introduction of nightmarishly surreal elements that tip things from the hyper-real to the gloriously abstract. This might not make everyone happy – after all that grittiness, the dreamy stuff might be off putting – but it's a true testament to the filmmakers' skill that they're able to stretch and contort what seems to be a fairly restrictive format into something really unique.
Lau (who also adapted the original film for the new screenplay) and Kentis previously directed the underappreciated oceanic thriller "Open Water," which was based on the true story of two divers who were left behind in shark-infested seas. The filmmakers brought a documentary feel to that film that made the danger even more palpable, and it's interesting to see them meld that aesthetic with something even wilder. Some of the cuts you can easily spot, while others are concealed cleverly or within a whip-smart nod to horror's past (at one point Sarah only has a Polaroid camera to light her way, and the effect mirrors the opening of Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"). It's a testament to their skill as filmmakers that the surrealism never trips up the realism and vice versa; it's nearly note-perfect in its delivery of high-wire thrills.
What's disappointing is that in the movie's final moments, a definitive ending has to be punctuated and, in all honestly, that ending is a bit of a letdown. We've gone on a psychological rollercoaster ride with this young woman -- who is given even more depth thanks to Lau's perceptive script that cannily deconstructs horror movie clichés through the prism of feminist theory and psychoanalysis -- and comes to a conclusion that just peters out instead of building to some sinister crescendo. And, to be honest, some of the weirder elements in the film's last act do take some of the steam out of the more convincingly terrifying moments (supposedly the ending was tinkered with since its premiere at Sundance last year). Thankfully, the truly talented Ms. Olsen is there every step of the way, wheezing, howling, and crying, with such unbridled passion, that even when it makes no sense at all, "Silent House" is still a scream. [B]