Silent House holds a lot of dark splendor for such a lean feature.
This trim 88-minute thriller is rendered in a single shot. That artistic effort alone makes it worth the price of admission.
It braids in a lot of other captivating elements: Subtle unfolding of the plot. An eerie, understated atmosphere. Mounting tension that wrenches into the surreal for the final act.
Best of all, Silent House has the golden thread of Elizabeth Olsen’s talent to hold it together.
Silent House is based on the Uruguayan film of the same name, La Casa Muda, and boosts much of the story and method from that ambitious sleeper. Where it almost certainly surpasses the original is in the critical department of talent scouting. The American version is an upgrade thanks to the discovery of a location and lead actress that pull off the complexity the story demands.
The story of Silent House is a simple one, once we pare away the many twists: A young woman, her father and her uncle return to her childhood home to renovate it, only to have lethal and unseen threats descend on them. Secrets are unearthed, terror abounds and, thanks to the unbroken shot, tension hits a fever-pitch early and keeps the audience snared for the whole length.
I cannot imagine Silent House working as well had that tether of tension not been secured to an anchor like Olsen. She conveys terror exquisitely. A one-note scream queen would have tired out our ears and eyes by the first act, but Olsen manages to create a custom blend of fear for each scene. This symphonic terror allows for the ebb and flow an audience needs to keep from being exhausted by relentless horror.
She also stitches in subtle hints of anxiety during earlier passages that prove grounds for pay-off later on in the plot. Without those, the later reveals could come across as cheap. Instead, Olsen drops pinches of anxiety, detachment and alarm into an explosive back story.
This sophistication and sheer magnetism make Olsen the pole star for the dark course of Silent House. Her accomplishment is supported by artful production talent. The “single shot” is, of course, several takes, but they merge without many obvious seams. Even when the hallucinatory intrudes at the climax, the illusion of an unbroken scene continues and the audience tension sweeps to its summit.
The strong suit of Silent House remains its command of the subtle. Whether Olsen’s exquisite skill, the setting’s pitch-perfect blend of an everyday house with an atmosphere of rot, or the neat handling of sound effects, Silent House orchestrates finely tuned instruments.
Unfortunately for those seeking a perfect horror film, Silent House forgets this at times and suffers for it.
The worst offense is when Silent House tacks towards a marketing trend to get its message across. Using terms like “Based on True Events” is outrageous malarkey and it’s beneath the art of the film. Silent House is less based on truth than Silence of the Lambs was.
On top that that pile of commercial crap can be heaped the Silent House trailer, which makes a pitiful pass at casting Silent House as a “found footage” flick. It’s not, nor should it be, nor should it pretend to be. The list of these sad, little sops to trends in horror film marketing is extensive. Silent House shouldn’t have resorted to them.
It isn’t just a matter of criticizing the window dressing: Several reviewers have already pinched their nose at the ways Silent House makes claims it can’t back up. This breach of trust makes the film seem banal. That crack in the lens is enough to be the film’s undoing considering how easily it can offend an audience with its content.
So don’t expect a found-footage masterpiece plucked from the headlines, and don’t expect a single, unbroken take. It’s a good thing the single shot was spun from several – the only other flaw in Silent House is that its supporting cast isn’t as astounding as Olsen. That’s no fault on them – it’s like saying a basketball pro is “flawed” because they’re not as good as LeBron – but their struggle to deliver powerful performances in the space of a single shot shows. They don’t make the grade they would have without the benefit of several tries, and there’s no arguing that Silent House suffers for it.
Does the benefit of the single shot outweigh the bad? Most definitely. This is more than a great horror film, it’s an awesome experience.
My recommendation: See Silent House. Set the bar where it belongs – on level with a neat, ferociously acted concept film – and watch Olsen and the narrative soar over it.
And be sure to bring someone to hide behind to see it with you.
Silent House opens nationwide on March 9, 2012.