By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — This house is anything but silent. And this film is anything but loud.
The spooky, nightmarish Silent House is a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan horror thriller, one the ads for which boast “real terror in real time,” about a woman in what seems to be a kind of haunted house.
Well, the “real time” part is mostly true. And the “real terror” thrust has its moments as well.
Elizabeth Olsen stars as Sarah, a young woman who has, for the first time in years, come to her family’s secluded and dilapidated lakeside vacation home somewhere in New England, a place she does not remember all that fondly, to help her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) clean it up and clear it out before it’s sold.
Another young woman (Julia Taylor Ross) stops by and tells Sarah she was a childhood playmate, but Sarah cannot remember her. As for the house, there’s no electricity (rats chewed through the wires), but plenty of icky mold. Cell phones don’t work here. And Sarah hears creaking noises while she’s working that her father explains are just natural house sounds.
Then she discovers that everybody has gone and that she’s trapped inside the locked house, which is pitch black because all the windows have been broken and boarded up with plywood, so she has no way of contacting the outside world.
And she doesn’t think she’s alone. Someone — she doesn’t know who or why — seems to be after her.
The central conceit of Silent House is that the film is essentially one 88-minute take. Although the film presents itself as one continuous, unedited shot — that is, one uninterrupted shot with no cuts (à la Hitchcock’s Rope, although that film cheated with concealed cuts as well) — that’s not exactly the case. But it’s close.
So let’s just say that it’s edited to appear that way. And that however that illusion is achieved, it’s nonetheless effective in providing a unique viewing experience and maintaining a sense of dread throughout.
The husband-and-wife directing team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who gave us the scary 2003 thriller Open Water, work from Lau’s screenplay and concentrate so exclusively on Sarah that we are forced to share her feelings of entrapment and panic-stricken terror, fueled by the severely limited amount of light.
And because we wander in the dark with her and see what she sees, we feel what she feels.
Up-and-coming star Olsen, the younger sister of the Olsen twins who was so impressive in her breakthrough role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, dominates the proceedings and carries her second straight intense, demanding film pretty much all by herself.
Once again she is appealingly vulnerable, wonderfully expressive, and strongly watchable, although this film does not call on her acting skills in quite the same way as her previous outing did. Still, she appears alone during the vast majority of the film’s running time — and appears to be the real deal.
The camera choreography is admirable, forcing us to peruse the frame intently, and the inclusion of generic shock scares, “now you see it, now you don’t” jack-in-the-box moments, and jumpy musical cues come with the territory. But Kentis and Lau take the less-is-more approach, letting our imaginations do the work and never showing us too much.
This is certainly a visceral experience. Early on, it will scare the furniture right off your porch and keep you on edge with excruciating, maybe even unbearable, suspense as the narrative evolves from the slice-of-life mundane to the larger-than-life terrifying.
But however raptly attentive the audience is in the early going, we eventually must get to the puzzle’s solution. And about the narrative’s big reveal, the less said the better because any detailed discussion of it would give away far too much.
It must be said, however, that while Kentis and Lau have done wonders with the film’s setup and style, they have not found a conclusion that quite fits or satisfies. And, the title notwithstanding, detractors will not remain silent about it.
Anyway, we’ll trap 2½ stars out of 4 for this tension-filled, claustrophobic, real-time chiller that has trouble finding its way home. Still, Silent House manages to find a hair-raising hidden hallway in its haunted house.