Silent House is centered entirely on one woman’s terror as she is systematically stalked by an unknown assailant in a creepy, spooky old house. At first glance, this plotline might seem like it comes straight from another slasher movie, but Silent House is anything but. Starring the incredibly talented newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) as the protagonist “Sarah”, and with Laura Lau as producer and co-director (along with Chris Kentiss), Silent House is about sharing a woman’s journey through a terrifying and dangerous home invasion. Lau and Kentiss craft a female character that can carry a genre film without resorting to the shallow dialogue and requisite nudity that epitomize many horror movies for mainstream audiences.
Sarah (Olsen) is a young, shy woman with a close relationship to her father and uncle. Returning to a dilapidated family summer vacation home in order to make repairs and sell the three-story house, they spend an afternoon behind the boarded-up windows making renovations by lamplight. After a few eerie occurrences, like a visit from an unfamiliar childhood playmate and inexplicable noises that only Sarah hears, she finds herself alone in the house with an unknown invader who seems hell-bent on catching, and hurting, her.
Silent House keeps the camera on Sarah the entire duration of the movie; we see everything she sees and only when she sees it, in real time. As a result, her panic, her fear, and her concern for her family members are intense and accessible. Lau and Kentiss didn’t come up with the technique on their own; the film is a faithful remake of the 2011 Uruguayan movie La Casa Muda which used first used that method. Lau and Kentiss wanted to recreate that powerful feeling for US audiences with an American cast while delving deeper into the psychological horror of the storyline; Sarah is a troubled young woman, we come to realize through clues in the movie, and she may have a more complicated, and destructive, family history than was initially assumed. The audience pieces together clues while remaining absorbed in her danger.
It’s Olsen’s incredible talent that truly carries Silent House out of the dredges of the much-maligned low-budget horror genre and into mainstream psychological drama; she crafts a well-defined and terrified young woman with deftness and intensity. By staying on her through the entire hour and a half, the camera allows us to identify with her and become a part of her rather horrendous journey of survival and self-discovery.
Olsen is destined for great things. Her recent festival wins for her riveting performance as another troubled woman in Martha Marcy May Marlene reinforce that she’s interested in complex and interesting roles. Laura Lau, too, seems to have taken more control of her own career as a filmmaker with Silent House; in 2004, Lau and husband/filmmaking partner Kentiss made the thriller Open Water on which she was credited as producer, but openly admitted to having, in actuality, co-directed that movie. Now, 8 years later, she is accurately credited as the co-director of Silent House. In a film industry that often dismisses female producers in favor of male directors as the architects of good films, Lau’s new credits will gain her some much-deserved recognition for her work.
While the ending leaves much to be desired in terms of realism or sensitivity to real-life tragedies, Silent House is successful as an experiment in creating and executing new techniques to challenge audiences to identify with female protagonists as well as to encapsulate themselves in an extremely intense and uncomfortable moment of real time.
Silent House is out in US theaters nationwide on March 9th, 2012.
Heidi Martinuzzi is a Los Angeles film journalist who writes about genre films. She is the programmer of the women’s horror film festival Viscera and the blog about women directors of horror and sci-fi Planet Etheria.