On the surface, the new thriller Silent House may look like a dozen other thrillers to come out recently, movies in which the camera is the direct point-of-view of one of the terrorized characters. The camera here is only a third-person observer, however, just like us. In this case, it is an ever-present observer, one that never cuts away from the action and records the terror all in one continuous take. It’s a fascinating experiment that has been tried by directors as great as Alfred Hitchcock and it works well, for a while, but there is only so many times we can crouch under a bed or table with our protagonist.
That protagonist is Sarah, a young woman who is helping her father and uncle clean out their old lake house so that they can sell it. It is a creepy old house to begin with and is made even more so due to the lack of electricity and the fact that all of the windows have been boarded up. This means that no light gets in even in the daytime and the characters must navigate the expansive house using flashlights, work lamps, and candles.
After her uncle heads into town, Sarah is cleaning up her old room when she hears a disturbing sound outside the door. Sarah was already unnerved by the thought that there was someone else in the house, but she becomes increasingly frightened now that her father has suddenly disappeared. Sarah wants to get out of the house to go find help, but all of the doors are suddenly locked and the key that usually hangs by the front door is now gone. To find her way out, she must navigate the dark, dingy hallways, avoiding the footsteps that seem to be following her. To make matters worse, this house also comes complete with a creepy basement and an attic that may hold the secret to what is terrorizing her.
Sarah actually gets out of the house fairly early in the movie, but circumstances that I won’t reveal here lead her back inside. (This led to plenty of exasperated sighs at the screening I attended, from an audience who knows that when you manage to escape a scary house, you stay out of the scary house.) The return to the house does make sense with the direction this movie ends up taking in the end, a path that actually seems to lessen the impact of what we have seen up to that point, rather than strengthen it.
Silent House strives to be terrorizing for every one of its continuous 88 minutes, leaving no space for comic relief. The problem with this is that an audience is going to find its own way to relieve the tension. In the best of scary movies, this comes from the audience members laughing at themselves for being scared into jumping out of their seats. In Silent House, unfortunately, it came at the expense of the aforementioned exasperation over certain character decisions, as well as some tortured overacting.
Sarah is played by Elizabeth Olsen, fresh off her acclaimed breakout performance in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Looking more like her popular older sisters than she did in that movie, she is asked little more in Silent House than to just act terrorized. She does her job well as we do believe that she is terrified, but there are a few times when she pushes it a little too over the top, causing an adverse audience reaction.
Of course, her big challenge is not simply looking terrorized, but looking terrorized consistently for most of the movie’s 88 minutes without a single break. She is in just about every frame of this single-shot production, which is impressive for its preparation alone. It is hard to imagine all of the details that had to be clearly mapped out before the camera began to roll on this production. The actors had to hit every one of their marks precisely on cue, as did the camera operator. Imagine the intense pressure on everyone in both cast and crew to avoid being the ones who makes a mistake 74 minutes in. The novelty alone makes this a movie worth watching.
The art direction also should be appreciated, lending this house the creepy atmosphere needed to make such a movie. The sound effects are also very well done, slightly exaggerating normal old rundown house sounds to help create the creepy atmosphere. The music also works to create this effect at times, but at others it seems almost too soft and terrorizing for its own good.
Whether an audience likes this movie or not will likely come down to whether or not they bought the ending. Personally, I felt it was a little too telegraphed and would have preferred the movie had not gone the direction it eventually did. Not as scary as it looked like it would be, but still scary enough that I had to keep reminding myself to breathe.
Silent House is rated R for “disturbing violent content and terror.” Definitely too scary for little kids and there were even some adults leaving in the middle. Some graphic violence and suggestion turns up towards the end.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Silent House.