Mark Reviews Movies

Silent House


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Chris Kentis and Laura Lau

Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content and terror)

Running Time: 1:25

Release Date: 3/9/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 8, 2012

Silent House is a relentless thriller about a young woman's tour through a nightmare of a house that becomes a literal nightmare only to return to a reality that is perhaps more horrifying than she could have imagined. It's also a technically savvy and ingenious film that captures the entire affair in one, seemingly unbroken take. That feat alone makes the film something unique (even if it is a remake of a 2010 movie from Uruguay); the fact that it is genuinely, chillingly frightening only makes it the more astonishing of an accomplishment.

Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have taken the age-old concept of a haunted house and planted it firmly in the realm of the practical. For a long stretch, there is nothing more to the story than Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) walking, running, exploring, and cowering throughout the various rooms and hallways of the summer home from her childhood. The reason is a simple one: A man, a group of people, or something is inside the house, systematically picking off any ally she might have and hunting her to be his/their/its next victim.

Beforehand, Sarah, her father John (Adam Trese), and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are at the house to fix it up for its eventual sale. There's little character development at the start, but it's not necessary. The essential pieces are put in place. John is an attentive, caring father. Peter is a doting uncle, who maybe stares a bit too long at his niece when he considers how she's grown. Sarah is startled by a noise upstairs.

Her father points out that she is generally scared of such things—generally, the unknown or maybe, more specifically, the upstairs part of the house. Even the house itself is established in a sort of in-joke as "infected." It's mold, John tells his brother, meaning it would actually be "affected." Peter heads into town after they get into a fight over something, which might be as trivial as mold or as significant as, well, no one knows for sure.

A few key points arise before all hell breaks loose. An old friend of Sarah's named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) arrives at the house. Sarah doesn't remember her; she has "holes up there" in her memory. Sophia seems a bit off—a bit too eager to rekindle the friendship. She has pictures, she assures Sarah, and indeed, photographs appear out of nowhere in one of the bedrooms as John and Sarah investigate whatever the noise upstairs might be. "They're nothing," the father tells his daughter.

We know Sophia couldn't possibly be in the house to place the snapshots there, because we see Sarah lock the front door from the inside with a key that conveniently hangs next to the frame. Lau's screenplay is succinct in establishing little details like the location of the key, which will become all the more important when Sarah really needs it.

Until then, Sarah is supposed to clean out her things from her old bedroom. There's a bright red lockbox to which she doesn't have the key, and soon after tossing it in the garbage bag, she hears a noise from the next room. When she goes to check on her father, he's not there.

She is alone, and the directors and cinematographer Igor Martinovic pull out all the minimalist tricks available to enhance that sense of isolation (It's established even before the chase with the opening crane shot of Sarah sitting by herself on the rocks next the lake adjacent to the house; in retrospect, considering how the shot seamless shifts into the handheld camerawork that follows, the move is quite impressive). From claustrophobic shots tightly framing Sarah's face as she walks the halls to varying sources and levels of illumination that always keep the corners of the frame in shadow (if the entire picture isn't pitch black in the first place), the camera develops its own personality (An amusing bit has it hesitating on the stairs, uncertain if Sarah will be joining her dad upstairs), with shifts from subjective to objective point of views that keep us even more on edge. There's a bit involving the flash of a camera that's seen entirely from her perspective that's particularly nerve-wracking.

The sound is vital to the overall atmosphere and, in fact, the storytelling, as well. There are stretches of time when nothing is happening on screen, as the camera lingers on a wall where the actual action is happening or on Sarah's face as she attempts to determine from where a certain crash or some footsteps are coming. Much is left to the imagination as we're put in Sarah's position. Even the layout of the house is a mystery, leaving each new room into which she enters pregnant with tension, like when she discovers a lived-in room in the basement, which is, in and of itself, a maze of sharp corners with plenty of open space where she can see anyone coming her way and vice versa.

Olsen's performance is key to the experience, and she serves as a sympathetic surrogate for the audience. The script does not weigh her character down with excessively unbelievable behavior (Some loud bustling through drawers is the most notable exception, but even that makes little difference); most of it is perfectly rational (the way she holds her breath as the intruder comes closer to the door behind which or the table under which she's hiding). Olsen especially excels at gradually raising her own level of terror as the situation mounts.

There are few places this material can ultimately go, and Silent House features a climax that puts the entire incident into a new context. It's a trick, to be sure, but one that Kentis and Lau never cheat to accomplish (The moments when the camera holds on a wall are especially important). After all, the monster has always been in the house.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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