Silver Screen: Silent House **1/2
The intermittently scary horror flick Silent House certainly feels like a remake. In fact, it is a retread of 2010's Spanish-language La Casa Muda, but it most strongly recalls Alexandre Aja’s 2003 film High Tension. It's certainly nowhere near as violent as Aja's movie, but as the simple story amps up the weirdness on the way to the finale, anyone who has seen both films will get the sinking feeling that a familiar twist is on the way. I'd say that's a spoiler alert, but then again, if you've seen High Tension, Silent House can hardly be spoiled.
The confined thriller stars Elizabeth Olsen as Sarah, who's spending the day at her family's dilapidated summer house helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) try to clean up the property for sale. The powerlines are severed and the windows have mostly been broken out, rendering the inside almost completely dark and requiring everyone to use candles and flashlights to see. The walls are also filled with a pervasive mold rotting the structure from the inside (metaphor alert!).
After Peter goes into town for supplies, Sarah hears the sound of a struggle and then can't find her father-- although she does hear footsteps. Freaked out, she tries to run out into the daylight, but the exit is barred. Suddenly she finds herself trapped alone in the dark house-- or perhaps not so alone?
Silent House is presented as one continuous eighty-five-minute take. It's not actually a single, long shot, but rather a series of long scenes bridged with transitions meant to disguise the cuts, as in Alfred Hitchcock's wonderful and underrated Rope. Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau do a nice job of hiding the transitions between scenes; you can find them if you're really looking for them, but it's pretty seamless. The gimmick has a significant effect, adding to the immediacy and claustrophobic terror of the setup.
Certainly this requires a great deal of lead actress Olsen, who does an excellent job. She's more than just the wide-eyed ingé nue fleeing from the shadowy stalker. She's onscreen nearly every second, and for long stretches without dialogue or a direct scene partner, and many of her best moments come when she-- as per the title-- struggles to stifle any noise she might make. It's not quite the silent performance à la Jean Dujardin in The Artist, but there's some excellent, wordless acting here.
Directors Kentis and Lau have done fine work with minimalist horror previously in Open Water, a decidedly different approach to horror in which a pair of scuba divers are abandoned and left adrift in the ocean to fend for themselves through storms and shark attacks. Open Water was about the terrors of the infinite abyss, with its protagonists reduced to two insignificant dots in a vast expanse of sea. Silent House takes the opposite approach, confining the heroine to a handful of inescapable dark rooms. In that way the films are essentially inverse approaches to exploring the fear of isolation.
And for an hour or so, Silent House is quite effective. The tension begins to mount after a slow build and never really lets up. The trouble is, it starts to tilt toward the hysterical in the final act, and the increasing weirdness is a harbinger of the grating final twist to come, one that is both awkwardly foreshadowed and painfully dull. The final revelations render the movie less spooky than depressing, and despite having grander ambitions, it fails to stand out among similar, more frightening fare like the more visceral The Strangers or Ti West's throwback gem House of the Devil.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.