Film review: Silent House starring Elizabeth Olsen

The purveyors of the horror thriller Silent House promise a uniquely scary experience on three fronts: No. 1. It is inspired by true events. No. 2. It is shown in real time. No. 3. It is presented as a single take.

This appears to be a solid foundation for a great time at the movies, namely, the kind where you hide your face in your neighbour’s armpit and clench your butt for two hours. So does real story and real time equal real scary? Not really.

Silent House is a remake of a much creepier, no-budget Uruguayan film of the same name, La Casa Muda. Supposedly based on a real 1940s crime, both films tell the story of a girl who becomes trapped in a rundown house.

The Hollywood remake stars Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of the famed twins who grew up in the not silent, but Full House. Fresh from her acclaimed breakout role in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene as a young woman escaping a cult, Olsen’s luck isn’t any better here.

Silent House begins with a looming shot of Sarah (Olsen) by the water. (That’s fitting since directors Chris Kentis and his wife, Laura Lau, last brought us the shark thriller Open Water.) The camera then trails behind her as she returns to the dilapidated summer retreat that her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are fixing up for resale.

With the power out and night descending, Sarah hears noises upstairs. “It’s probably the damn rats,” her father says. It could also be a chainsaw wielding maniac or Occupy protesters, but the magic of horror is not knowing, as that leads to penetrating dread. What Sarah doesn’t know, however, hurts others. She hears a bang and the wall shudders, as if someone has thrown a bowling ball at it. She then discovers her father felled, bloody but breathing.

All of the action happens in 88 minutes, and by “action,” I mean a protracted game of hide-and-seek. Sarah often hides under tables, which is about as effective as when you used to cover your eyes as a child, thinking no one would see you.

Olsen is in almost every shot, filling the screen with her teary eyes and snotty nose (which is good because Trese and Stevens put in weak performances). The actress is extremely watchable as a wholesome, vulnerable girl clad in a low-cut tank top, scared out of her mind – although I’d argue that the only time knuckle-biting is believable onscreen is if the person has dried chocolate bits on her skin.

The film’s real star, though, is cinematographer Igor Martinovic, who was director of photography for the critically acclaimed documentary Man on Wire. He seamlessly follows Sarah around the property. He chases her down the stairs, toward a locked door. Their shaky dance around corners, through the trees, and by the light of a lantern is so deft that the gimmick graduates to suspenseful storytelling.

The most ingenious and frightening scene in the film comes when our heroine’s lantern dies and she must light her way with a Polaroid camera (Olsen’s generation may take comfort in the fact that their cellphones come with flashlight apps).

The house is relatively quiet, except for Sarah’s whimpers, screams and an unremarkable score made up of scraping violins, which is as niggling as buzzing flies.

The film looks like a good sell; however, the foundation rests on shaky ground. There is only so much a single-take gimmick can do with a less-than-satisfying plot. The third act reveals a twist that disappoints; the clenching was for nothing but getting firmer glutes. In the end, the real silent house may be a theatre full of unimpressed filmgoers.

Rating 2 out of 4

This review was originally published in the National Post on March 9 2012.

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