Elizabeth Olsen in 'Silent House' elevates the film above scary movie cliches

Elizabeth Olsen delivers an engrossing performance as a young adult in a mysterious house.

Open Road Films/AP
Elizabeth Olsen keeps the audience engrossed despite long, uninterrupted takes in the movie 'Silent House.'

After a breakout performance in Sean Durkin’s 2011 drama film, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to the infamous Olsen twins) is set to try her hand at the horror genre in Silent House. Olsen’s performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene earned her several “Best Actress” nominations – leading many film fans to question whether Silent House would impede Olsen’s rising star, or prove that even in a horror-thriller project the young actress can deliver a compelling performance.

Of course, Silent House isn’t just a basic slasher-horror film where brainless co-eds run up a flight of stars instead of out the front door. Directed by cinematography team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who cut their teeth on the 2003 survival-horror film, Open Water (about a pair of scuba divers who are inadvertently left alone miles from shore in shark-infested waters), Silent House offers 88 minutes of “based on true events” story presented as a single, uninterrupted take.

Does the pairing of Olsen with the “high-concept” premise make for a gripping and unique theater experience?

Ultimately, the performances in Silent House - as well as the unique filmmaking presentation – elevate the movie above normal horror-thriller cliches; however, the film definitely has a few shortcomings that, despite the larger successes, undermine the overall effectiveness of the experience.

Taking cues from the 2010 Uruguayan film, The Silent House, Kentis and Lau’s Silent House story is pretty basic – which makes sense for a movie with only a few characters and an especially limited scale. We follow leading-lady Sarah (Olsen) through a tense, and at times horrifying, ordeal: Sarah, along with her father, John (Adam Trese), and Uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), is in the process of fixing up the family’s dilapidated vacation home, in an effort to make the property more attractive when they attempt to sell it. Sarah begins to hear mysterious noises in the upstairs portion of the house, and when she and her dad attempt to investigate the sounds, it quickly becomes clear that they are not alone – nor are they safe. Whether or not the alleged “true event” inspiration of the film ever actually occurred remains unsubstantiated (and was a point of contention among fans of the 2010 Uruguayan film); however, “based on true events” or not, the fundamental storyline works well enough within the confines of the 88 minute timeframe.

Despite that simple set up, Silent House is a meticulously crafted film. Not only is the house isolated, every window is boarded up (to prevent local kids from breaking the glass) and all the doors are dead-bolted (to keep out squatters) – creating an atmosphere of dark isolation that works to the film’s advantage again and again. Sarah (as well as John and Peter) rely on handheld propane as well as LED lamps – which, coupled with the “uninterrupted take” presentation, will definitely keep audience members squinting into the darkness, along with the film’s main characters.

Silent House features a number of lengthy takes and, unsurprisingly, Olsen is up to the task – delivering a successful and engrossing performance. Admittedly, the role isn’t going to earn her too many accolades, but considering most of her onscreen time is spent reacting to sounds in the dark, her performance definitely brings added layers (and believability) to a role that might have otherwise been portrayed by a less convincing actress.

The “real time” presentation brings events to life in a compelling way, but at the same time, undermines any opportunity for audiences to gain insight into Sarah – beyond basic demeanor and rapport with Peter and John. Even as the darker mystery of the house unfolds, there’s very little chance for audiences to “get to know” any of the main characters – which is somewhat of a missed opportunity, especially given Olsen’s onscreen presence. Some moviegoers will no doubt defend the barebones portrayal of the characters, arguing that they are merely vehicles for the audience to become immersed in the creepy situation; however, given that they have a history with the “Silent House,” the choice ultimately detracts from the effectiveness of the film’s finale.

Regardless, the “hook” of 88 minutes of “uninterrupted” footage will definitely provide moviegoers with a unique theater experience, as the format ratchets up the tension in certain scenes and successfully captures the sense of claustrophobia that Sarah is experiencing throughout. With “found-footage” movies starting to wear thin (just look at Apollo 18 and The Devil Inside for proof), it’s hard to ignore the possibility that “real time” horror films could be the next go-to move for Hollywood executives. The prospects are certainly intriguing (until the concept is used up) - at least based on how the idea is employed in Silent House. While a few of the “transition” moments aren’t as fluid as others, the overall effect is pretty compelling.

That said, some moviegoers may be somewhat underwhelmed by Sarah’s over-arching “ordeal” – as Silent House is much more grounded than other horror-thrillers. There are a number of jump scares and truly creepy moments, but in this case, the real horror is in the uncertainty of each and every moment – which, for some viewers, might result in the opinions that there’s not a lot actually happening. Fright fans looking for on-the-nose Paranormal Activity-like visual set-pieces could walk away underwhelmed, as the film’s climatic ”reveals” will, for some viewers, be somewhat of an unearned cop out (or, worse yet, overly obvious). However, that doesn’t mean that the film fails to present plenty of tense, albeit grounded, moments.

Moviegoers looking for a unique horror-thriller experience, who find the “real time” premise intriguing, are likely to enjoy Silent House in spite of its flaws – since the film manages to succeed in a number of its lofty ambitions. Unfortunately, the fundamental structure of the movie prevents the experience from doing anything more than immersing an audience in the moment to moment situation – leaving the characters and over-arching storyline struggling to gain traction or lay a workable foundation for the film’s finale.

Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.

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