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.
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.
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]