It’s a good thing ingenue du jour Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is so incandescent, because in her second feature, the horror film Silent House, her character Sarah is pretty much the only thing you can see clearly. Rats and mischievous squatters have romped through Sarah’s family’s seldom-visited waterfront summer home. With the windows boarded up, Sarah needs a flashlight to find her way around even in daylight.
Her controlling father (the wooden Adam Trese) and his youngish Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) have enlisted Sarah’s help in repairing and packing up the moldy, leaky house to put it on the market. On this particular late afternoon she’s visited by an overly friendly girl named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) who claims to have been her playmate when they were young. Sarah doesn’t remember her, confessing she sometime thinks her mind is full of “holes.” Uh oh. Soon thereafter, Sarah starts hearing noises inside the house. She begs her skeptical father to investigate. The terror really begins after he stops responding to her bleats of “Daddy?” Key clues embedded in dialogue and gesture in the first few minutes of the film have already illuminated both the path Silent House is taking and why, but the movie still succeeds in terms of creating heart racing tension as Sarah attempts to escape whoever or whatever has entered the house.
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That’s because co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who collaborated on 2003’s shark tale Open Water, are so good with sound and shadows. Silent House, a remake of the 2010 Uruguayan film La Casa Muda unfolds as if in real time — and though it has been edited, is intended to look as though it was filmed in one long take — with Sarah undergoing a range of emotions that includes a lot of hysteria (when she sobs in the darkness, it sounds like giggling) and a few instances of pluck and enterprise. The accompanying soundtrack has the churning quality of waves and rises and falls accordingly as Sarah narrowly misses the bogeyman at least a half dozen times. The house isn’t silent at all; it’s full of bumps, grinds, squeaks and most evocatively, the sound of rolling bottles and the whir of a Polaroid camera.
There are moments in Silent House which might make you feel physically ill, mostly from the quavering hand held camera, but also from the sense of oppression brought on by the certitude of knowing the rest of the film will be in the dark. The proportion of masochism to catharsis, so crucial to the strange pleasure to be found in horror films, is skewed far more to the masochistic side of things. Or maybe it’s that the catharsis, when it arrives, has a cheapness to it, an emotional gimme right out of Law and Order
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But Kentis and Lau were lucky to cast Olsen, who made such an auspicious debut in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. In both movies she plays a vulnerable young woman being pursued and terrorized by some sort of demons (in Martha it was a charismatic cult leader). Sarah does any number of silly things while scurrying through this not-so-silent house, but keeps the audience on her side; you want her to get out of the house immediately but you don’t get annoyed with her when she can’t. Even in a predictable horror film like Silent House, Olsen draws empathy like a magnet.