Elizabeth Olsen as Sarah
Adam Trese as John
Eric Sheffer Stevens as Peter
Julia Taylor Ross as Sophia
Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau
It's been eight years since the filmmaking couple of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau brought their low-budget stranded-at-sea thriller "Open Water" to the Sundance Film Festival, with many claiming or hoping it to be the next "Blair Witch Project."
In their single take remake of the Uruguayan horror film of the same name by Gustavo HernÃ¡ndez, they play with more familiar horror tropes, that being the haunted house thriller, but also delving into other horror sub-genres with slasher elements thrown into the mix.
A young woman named Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) has returned to her old abandoned family home with her father (Adam Treese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) in order to pack up their things and fix up the house to sell it. They walk around the darkened house - all of the windows are boarded up - with electric lamps that create an effectively eerie lighting and immediately there's a strange dynamic between them that tells us something isn't quite right. After her uncle leaves, Sarah starts to hear noises in the house, and when her father goes to investigate, he disappears, leaving her trapped in the house unable to get out. And apparently, she's no longer alone in there either.
Like Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope"* or the original movie, the conceit of the film is that it's entirely shot in one take with only a couple obvious times where they could have easily cheated. If you weren't informed in advance that the movie was done in one take, you may not even realize it as the camera person/DP follows the characters up and downstairs, in and out of the house in an incredibly fluid way, barely missing a beat as we go from mundane packing activities to intense horrors.
Kentis and Lau have done a terrific job creating an atmosphere of tension, keeping the viewer on the edge never knowing what to expect or in fact, what exactly is going on. This helps to make some of the more obvious jump scares work better than they might normally, something that can also be attributed to Nathan Larson's subtle but effective score.
Even so, the filmmakers sadly go for many often-used cliches rather than trying to find original ways of scaring people. At times, it's hard not to feel like the "Paranormal Activity" movies were a bigger influence on them than the original film since they use many of the same tricks. Just as Sarah is already freaking out beyond the point of being able to calm down, the lights in the house go out completely, leaving her alone with a flash camera. When that happens, you know what to expect, the old "using the flash to illuminate a room before something jumps out," a clichÃ© that's been used in so many bad horror movies already. The fact that you're never really sure if anyone's really in the house with Sarah or if she's imagining all of it or a combination of both is quite frustrating as well. Numerous times we see a physical presence, a large imposing man who seems to be stalking her, but then there's also a creepy little girl who appears and disappears at random, then other times, she seems to be experiencing her own memories.
What keeps the film from failing is that Olsen is an amazing actress, able to pull off a wide range of emotions, the most important one being fear, and keeping the audience (and camera) riveted to her. The fact that she can run such a wide gamut in one take is even more impressive.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers stick the landing, just like in "Open Water" in fact, with an ending so ridiculous it squanders any good will the viewer may have had towards how effectively they've achieved what must have been an incredibly difficult task. Without giving it away, the ending not only leaves you wondering what you just watched but also wondering how any of it is could have even been possible; the ending text literally swiped directly from "Paranormal Activity" adds insult to injury.
Ultimately, "Silent House" is the type of horror film that will build a substantial unscalable wall between those who love it and those who hate it--mainly for that ending--although even the latter group should be able to appreciate it for the incredible craft at work.
*Thanks to Jeffrey Wells for lending us that reference.