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A certain technical virtuosity is the signal virtue of Silent House, a creaky haunted house that, once the big twist is revealed, makes very little sense at all. Being promoted as consisting of a single camera take, which is not true, husband-and-wife writer-director Chris Kentis‘ and Laura Lau‘s follow-up to their 2003 suspense sleeper Open Water has a few startling moments, though most of all it has Elizabeth Olsen in a revealing T-shirt as box-office bait. A quick and modest theatrical spin looks to be followed by solid returns in ancillary markets.
Based on director Gustavo Hernandez‘s ultra-low-budget La Casa Muda, which was Uruguay’s submission to the Academy’s foreign-language film competition last year, Silent House reportedly has been significantly changed since its world premiere at Sundance in January 2011. According to the producers, the last 15 minutes were entirely reshot (so much for the single-take claim), the opening was tightened, dialogue was changed, and the sound was completely remixed.
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Like Open Water and innumerable other budget-challenged horror items, the new film places a limited number of characters in an isolated setting. Beauteous young Sarah (Olsen) has come to help her dad (Adam Trese) clean up and clear out a country summer house Sarah hasn’t visited in years (the picture was shot near New Rochelle, N.Y.).
An initial, graceful camera move that starts as an overhead shot observing Sarah on a rock overlooking a lake and subsequently cranes down to follow her over to a handsome house represents the initial tip-off as to the directors’ stylistic ambitions. The visual niceties persist in the many agile maneuvers from room to room (often in darkness or something close to it) and the impressive way cinematographer Igor Martinovic (Man on Wire and the second episode of the Red Riding trilogy for James Marsh) maintains a good perspective between Olsen and the frequently changing backdrops.
Other than that, it’s hokum increasingly drugged by tedium. Greeted by Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) at the house, where the electricity has conveniently gone out, and by a young woman who claims to have been her friend when they were young girls, Sarah hears suspicious sounds upstairs. And before long, something really bad happens to Papa.
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More than many previous imperiled heroines in screen history, Olsen’s Sarah keeps her wits about her for a while, not entirely freaking out when phones don’t work and she realizes she’s effectively locked in. It’s quickly evidently, however, that if someone really wanted to get at Sarah, it would be awfully easy, just as it’s plain that a cheap horror movie that is stylistically constrained from using shock cuts is going to have fewer jolts than usual. The most alarming effects Kentis and Lau come up with involve quick flashes of an old Polaroid camera that most often show nothing in otherwise dark rooms but occasionally reveal something pretty creepy.
Soon, Sarah’s long afternoon journeys into night, which soon renders her close to catatonic but, more seriously for the movie, makes most of what’s come before seem unmotivated and/or unnecessary. Or perhaps silly is the right word for it.
Given that appearing in a horror film constitutes a rite of passage for many nubile actresses of a certain age, Olsen comes through this relatively unscathed; she does, in fact, prove that she can withstand intense camera scrutiny for nearly an hour-and-a-half and leave one wanting to see her again, though perhaps in an ensemble piece next time.
One could say that the film provides the illusion of being shot in a single take; on close inspection, though, there are several spots where cuts could and no doubt do occur, notably when the camerawork becomes wildly shaky and when the image goes black.
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