Directed by: Chris Kenson; Laura Lau, Runtime: 88 minutes
An unremarkable, boarded-up home on a lake provides the setting for Silent House, Chris Kenson and Laura Lau's quasi-realistic remake of an Argentinean chiller. For the most part, there isn't anything distinctive about the unlit space: white sheets cover furniture; old doors groan and jangle when they're used; and hardwood floors creak under every footstep. Yet, that familiarity, that feeling like we're creeping through any old run-of-the-mill space, is a deliberate part of the essence the creators of Open Water long to achieve, punctuating matter-of-fact surroundings that heighten our perception of a tormented girl's burgeoning fear. There's not much more to the premise beyond that, though -- an eighty-minute stretch of restrained, sensory-provoking anxiety -- but with capable execution of an ersatz one-take gimmick and Elizabeth Olsen as an emotional barometer, this tumble through a space with skeletons in its moldy closets exploits its assets well enough to achieve a dim atmospheric stranglehold.
Silent House resides in the middle ground between two cinematic techniques that have spiked in popularity: the long take, persevering from its quaint origins in the likes of Hitchcock's Rope into more perfunctory usage within Children of Men and Hanna, and the neo-realism of found footage horror productions like [REC] and The Blair Witch Project. It focuses on Sarah (Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene), a mid-twenties girl who's helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) clear out and spruce up the family's old lake house before it goes on the market, a place still packed to the gills with old furnishings and mementos. She shuffles around the two-story house, lights a few manual lanterns, squeaks along the wood floors, tosses some stuff in the garbage ... all ways of bringing our awareness of the area to a base, normal level. And, pretty much on cue, things turn weird when she hears knocking on doors and clamoring of footsteps within places in the house where nobody's present. Is it squatters, intruders, or something else?
Assorted lanterns and flashlights provide the only luminescence among the house's creaky architecture, which Silent House uses to play with our assessment of a pragmatic living space, weaving through this gloomy labyrinth of mundane corridors in what appears to be one sweeping camera movement. While it's not one long take -- Kenson and Lau cleverly replicate a Hitchcock-esque tactic to create the film's seamless effect, easily its linchpin -- it comes close enough to tricking one's perception into buying the idea; focusing on the flooring, wallpapers, propped mattresses and draped sheets achieves a proverbial point-of-view on Sarah's mania, while Igor Martinovic's woozy (yet calculated) camera movement pulls off an observant fly-on-the-wall effect. Submerged in the house's innate thuds and a disquieting focus on Sarah's reactions, the claustrophobia environment reaches occasional moments where it'll elevate blood pressure and prod at the nerves, bolstered by guileless scare tactics and fluctuations in the token horror-movie score.
Elizabeth Olsen rarely leaves direct sight, only periodically drifting out of the camera's point-of-view, which becomes Silent House's most significant asset. Menacing footsteps, rolling bottles, and clumsy sprints from room to room wouldn't have carried the same weight without her disarming, complex essence and nuanced mannerisms, her blend of puzzlement and terror lending more validity to the occurring events than they'd achieve with most other actresses willing to take on this project. The other characters really don't matter in the emotional arc, really, only for the meager script's plotting; both her family members and a friend from her past, the only other significant faces we see, get their respective points across without many infuriating dramatic foibles. That's both a testament to the film's limited purposes and the indistinct, occasionally humdrum nature of the acting. What's important here is Olsen, given her ubiquitous presence, and the young actress' composure pumps energy into bland, occasionally insipid points. And there's an air of secretiveness about her and the "holes in her memory" that gradually feeds our curiosity.
There's the rub with Silent House, though: there's not much else that we haven't seen before beyond the "realistic" scares it reaches by its one-take gimmick and powerhouse actress, the product of a skimpy, purpose-driven script. That includes the obligatory plot twist at its climax that, really, doesn't scare up much of a surprise if you're paying attention, or if you possess exposure to other mind-screw thrillers. Granted, there's something to be said for what's achieved with a handful of actors, a smattering of junk to populate the house, and a few lanterns to light the way in this exercise of fraught mania and the ghosts of dark secrets; it's a straightforward but exhilarating creation when looked at through the lens of minimalism and raw motivation, and the twist still takes flight when examined in this way. But there should be more ingenuity and a meatier story fueling the terror around such shadowy corners and behind locked doors as dusk's darkness blankets the eerie house, and that's ultimately what's left at the end of Kenson and Lau's endurance run: a tense purpose without the added punch it needs to clamp onto distinctiveness.
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