By Vinnie Abbatecola
The recent successes of 2011’s Insidious and the Paranormal Activity franchise (2009-2011) have proven that audiences still have the urge to embrace their fears and venture into a haunted house. When done right, a haunted-house film can make you tremble as you wait on the edge of your seat to see what’s around the corner, instead of having you laugh or groan at the clichés. In order to be frightened and impressed, it must be inventive.
Silent House, the new spook-fest from directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, based on the 2010 Uruguayan film La Casa Muda by Gustavo Hernandez, has the shocking events of the plot unravel in one continuous shot that lasts the duration of the film. Coming from someone who loves the technique, this film was an immediate interest-grabber.
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene) travels to her family’s lakeside house with her father (Adam Trese, 40 Days and 40 Nights) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julie & Julia) to help them fix it up before selling it. As afternoon fades to evening inside the house, Sarah is plagued by horrors. With the windows boarded-up and the doors locked, escape is nearly impossible. As the danger mounts and time starts running out, Sarah must figure out why she’s being terrorized and find a way out of the house.
Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t short-change the audience by giving a hackneyed performance that is all too common in most of today’s horror films. Because the camera follows her in what is meant to be actual time, Olsen takes us with her as she channels her inner scream queen and competently carries the film. We see every ounce of her fear and vulnerability as she goes from a girl who goes to investigate a strange noise in an attic to a helpless, terrified victim.
Most of Olsen’s dialogue is spoken while she’s with her father or uncle, and since she is alone for the majority of the film Olsen relies primarily on her facial expressions, heavy breathing and shrieks to demonstrate her panic, terror and defenselessness. Her realistic performance makes it easy for the audience to empathize with her as we navigate through every ominous hallway and room of the house.
Besides Olsen’s commendable performance, Silent House’s foremost attraction is the use of a long take that goes on for the entire film, the work of cinematographer Igor Martinovic. This long take is all shot with the shaky-cam method, and creates a disorienting feel as it chases Olsen.
At one point in particular, the camera follows her as she runs through a field. The camera seems to lose control of its movement as it tries to keep her in frame, and this institutes a potent sense of alarm and urgency. Given the fact that the camera is always in motion and possesses a documentary quality, Silent House is reminiscent of a found-footage film.
Thankfully, the filmmakers didn’t take the easy way out to deliver their story through that tired approach that has been popping up too often in horror films.
The film’s final twist is the one thing that damages the experience of Silent House. I won’t go into specifics, but odds are you have seen a twist like this before. Although the big reveal isn’t the ending that the film deserved, it does serve as a clever metaphor for the main character’s repressed memories. The result is that Olsen’s performance and the technical ambitions outweigh the overall story. However, with the shortage of new horror films deserving the genre distinction, you may want to put the key in the lock and enter this haunted house. At least it’s trying to be something different.