Forget that “Silent House” is shot in a single, continuous long take and what do you have? A persistently terrified Elizabeth Olsen embodying a young woman even less in touch with reality than her brainwashed character in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” A few well-timed jump scares. One large, spooky mansion surrounded by equally foreboding woods where Olsen darts about like a trapped insect. Faceless assailants with ominous agendas. In all, a gripping but altogether unmemorable haunted-house movie.
Mainly, though, “Silent House” is a showcase for that long take because, man, that camera can run. Based on the 2011 Uruguyan thriller “La Casa Muda,” which made a similar claim to “real fear in real time,” this nimble remake stays close to Olsen from the first minute until the last, hovering around her with a ghostly presence underscored by ubiquitous dread. As shy high school grad Sarah, ostensibly spending the summer with her dad at an abandoned country home, Olsen wanders around the property increasingly aware of some ominous force barreling down on her–but we know from the start it’s just the cameraman.
The unbroken shot has been used in service of suspense for decades, most famously with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” although the tracking shot of a ticking time bomb in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” displays more fluid movement. Digital cameras have enabled a greater amount of experimentation with the approach, as seen with last year’s intense split screen home invasion shocker “Kidnapped,” where four continuous takes conveyed the horrific incident in a singularly absorbing experience that bordered on the avant garde.
By comparison, “Silent House” maintains rather simple aims: Keep the camera running and the scare quotient high. If every cut starts the scene from scratch, the long take pulls you into the realism of the moment, heightening any sense of unease already established by the story. In “Silent House,” directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (“Open Water”) exploit the hell out of that uneasiness and keep pushing its limits.
After a few perfunctory scenes establishing Sarah’s disaffected state and an odd visit from a childhood friend, the camera ventures into the shadows of the house and lurks in its spooky crevices, drifting alongside Sarah as she and her father explore mysterious noises from up above. Once he vanishes, Sarah is left to her own devices, exploring her surroundings in an increasingly frantic state. Peeking around corners, hiding under the bed and quietly weeping in the dark, she’s a physical embodiment of fear.
There’s a reason for that: Nothing is absolute in “Silent House,” which hovers in Sarah’s subjectivity with the same phantom perspective of that acrobatic camera. Mysterious figures enter and leave the frame, calling into question whether anything in the movie has literal definition beyond Sarah’s petrified expression. Once it’s clear that secrets lurk just beyond Sarah’s awareness, jaded viewers will surely begin the guesswork about the true nature of Sarah’s eerie situation. Some will probably figure it out.
By the time the full scenario emerges, however, “Silent House” has already pulled off its best tricks, and they have nothing to do with plot twists. The reason for Sarah’s unquestionably scary conundrum is irrelevant since the filmmaking challenge requires only enough storyline to justify the forward motion. It’s one of the few occasions where you can marvel at the stuntwork and roll your eyes at the formula sustaining it.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Silent House” premiered at Sundance in 2011 and has since played strongly on the festival circuit, where genre fans have been mostly warm towards it. Open Road Films opens the film this Friday, a tough time of year for a small, experimental horror movie to find a large audience. It’s more likely to generate interest on VOD and DVD, particularly due to Olsen’s rising star power.