While it's a bit of a relief to see a horror film not using the "found-footage" gimmick, Silent House is done in by a couple of lousy supporting performances and a stupid payoff.
There's a pretty good idea at play here: Keep a camera on a girl who is being stalked by "something" in a remote house that is difficult to escape. Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who gave us the effective shark thriller Open Water, do a nice job of making the movie look like one long, continuous shot. It isn't, but there are some impressive long stretches and clever edits to make it appear as such.
Silent House is definitely an impressive technical achievement in shooting, successfully offering a real-time feel. It just needed a better script and a couple of men who could act.
Elizabeth Olsen, so good in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene, is a real talent. As Sarah, the young woman who can't seem to escape her damned house, she does a supreme job of playing scared out of her mind. One gets the sense that this particular gig must've been quite taxing on her psyche. Kentis and Lau probably did a good job of really scaring her senseless while filming.
Olsen has an arsenal of sounds that contributes well to the film's claustrophobic feel. When she tries to harness and muffle her screams, it is quite unsettling. She also lets out some pretty decent full-throated ones. Still, I would give her the distinction of being the Muffled and Suffocated Scream Queen.
Unfortunately, Adam Trese is a real stiff as John, Sarah's peculiar dad. His line readings are flat, making it hard to invest in his character. Eric Sheffer Stevens is a little better as Sarah's Uncle Peter, but he is ultimately dead weight as well. Julia Taylor Ross is a little too obvious as Sophia, an old friend of Sarah's who mysteriously drops by to hang out.
The film starts with an impressive overhead shot of Sarah as she sits by a lake. The shot comes down to meet Sarah as she walks into the house; it's a nice sequence. Cinematographer Igor Martinovic, whose pedigree includes lots of documentaries, works overtime to make the real-time gimmick work. However, he is unable to keep his subjects in focus all of the time when they are in motion. It's understandable given the task at hand, but that doesn't mean it is easy on the eyes.
The film is a remake of Uruguay's The Silent House, a movie allegedly shot in one take for around $6,000. I've seen portions of the original, and there's no argument that Kentis and Lau have made a better-looking film, and probably made a wise choice to make the film look like one take rather than actually shooting it in one take. A 90-minute continuous shot, while possible, would be a total bitch to pull off.
As I mentioned earlier, the film is undone by a payoff that tries too hard to be "deep" and provide a big twist. Given the technical work at play, and the effective Olsen performance, the cinematographer and actress were deserving of something a little more distinct and honest. The payoff throws everything askew, makes little sense, and is easily guessed.
By the time the credits rolled at the screening I attended, people yelled at the screen, using many expletives and variations on, "That sucked!" While I don't think Silent House sucks, I felt their frustration. Had the movie come up with a better final 15 minutes, it could've been something to remember. As it is, it's just a semi-impressive stunt that wastes a solid central performance.