The horror genre is typically not known for cinematography, acting or innovation since the purpose of horror is to scare and/or unsettle the audience. Doing so requires little more than quick movements, loud sounds and gore. While Silent House probably won’t win any awards for cinematography, acting or innovation, it does present those three aspects at a much higher level than most films in the same genre. The end result is a dark, tense and moody film that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats without keeping them up at night later.
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are renovating and emptying their family lakeside retreat in order to sell it. Because the house has taken some damage from squatters during the off-season, the family has been forced to board up the broken windows, essentially making the structure impregnable and inescapable. During the cleanup, with her uncle away, Sarah hears a disturbing noise and discovers her father bludgeoned unconscious when she goes to investigate. Realizing the danger, the situation devolves into a game of cat-and-mouse as Sarah must elude the intruder stalking her and find a way out of the house to get help.
One of the selling points of Silent House is its presentation as one continuous take. Whether the movie was actually filmed as one take or not (it wasn’t) is mostly irrelevant since the final cut presented to the audience looks like one shot. The point to take away is how this presentation affects the viewing experience. In this case, it works wonderfully. Once Sarah is fully aware of the intruder, the tension never really lets up, and that’s due in large part to the unflinching camera that stays with Sarah for almost the entire time. The “one take” convention does feel like a gimmick at times, especially when the camera refuses to pan over to something that Sarah can fully see, but those moments are forgivable. Overall, the “one take” presentation is a splendid addition that heightens the fear while giving movie buffs something to pick apart on a technical level.
Since Silent House stays with the main character for the entirety of the film, it’s important that that actor is strong. Thankfully, Elizabeth Olsen gives a fantastic performance that audiences will never tire of. The primal and instinctual fear she exudes throughout the film is so natural that it will easily transmit to the audience despite not being able to clearly see the things Sarah sees. Her performance instantly evokes sympathy and never loses it through to the end. Fortunately, Olsen doesn’t simply run around hysterically, trying to escape her pursuer. Instead, she summons Herculean courage to overcome the paralysis of her fear. This consistent battle between extremely strong emotions is wonderful to behold and Olsen ensures that audiences will enjoy her range.
There are a few aspects of Silent House that audiences are sure to take issue with. First, the film is not very frightening on an empirical level. There are the requisite mysterious sounds and unexpected fast movements that will surely get a few viewers jumping in their seats, but nothing that will have audience members second-guessing shadows at home – especially when the camera refuses to deal fairly by revealing everything. Yet, the obfuscation is a big part of the fear, and the more that is revealed, the less scary the film gets as Sarah’s situation becomes more manageable. Second, the ending of the film may put off some who like having singular interpretations of what just transpired. Nevertheless, the issues don’t detract much from the overall quality and goal of the film.
Silent House is a fine technical and dramatic achievement in cinema. The “one take” presentation is effective and believable, and Elizabeth Olsen delivers an enthralling performance. It isn’t the scariest movie in the horror genre, but it’s provocative and its quality is undeniable. Moviegoers really should treat themselves to this unique experience.