Title: Silent House
Directed By: Chris Kentis and Laura Lau
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Adam Barnett, Haley Murphy
I had to do a one-take exercise in film school and while it seemed like far less work, cutting out the large majority of the editing process, it actually turned out to be quite the opposite. Before you can even shoot, you need to go through extensive rehearsals, both for performance and blocking. Lucky for me, my shoot was a mere exercise, so typical fine tuning issues never came into play, but director Chris Kentis and Laura Lau undoubtedly had their work cut out for them when making Silent House, not only having to overcome all the caveats that come with making a movie that appears to play out in a single take, but also elevating the technique from being labeled a mere gimmick.
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her father, John (Adam Trese), are staying at their lakeside retreat, working to fix the place up and clean it out so they can sell it. Sarah’s uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), is helping out too, combing the house for mold and other wears and tears. If only rats hadn’t chewed through their power cables; electricity would make the work much easier.
When Peter takes off for the night, Sarah and John are left to finish up what they can alone. A few stray noises give Sarah a spook, but her father quickly writes them off, blaming their old creaky house. However, while packing away her childhood toys, Sarah hears something that she can’t possibly blame on the house. They’re not alone.
While the story itself is very disturbing, as it’s a remake of the 2010 Uruguayan film that’s supposedly based on true events, it’s the camerawork that’s the most striking element of Silent House. The film takes place in real time and is meant to look like it was shot in one incredibly long take. Of course that was not the case, but there still were some notably long shots involved as it takes quite some time to find a point in the film where a cut could have been possible.
So while Kentis and Lau were very successful in terms of upholding that illusion, we’re still left with the question of whether or not the one take is an appropriate means of storytelling. The shooting style gives Silent House a very found footage-esque feel. Someone is literally following Olsen around with a camera and while it is noticeable, it’s never distracting. There are a few instances where the camera is watching Olsen when the viewer would rather be seeing Olsen’s point of view, but generally, as far as coverage goes, the technique is quite effective, especially when it comes to the more horrifying points of the film, which is basically the large majority of it.
There’s a reason most found footage films fall in the horror genre; what’s scarier than feeling like you’re right in there with the characters? The shooting style of Silent House almost makes you feel as though you’re part of the action, like you’re the camera operator yourself, trailing Olsen. When she’s hesitant to turn a corner, so are you. When she’s crouched under a bed trying desperately not to make a sound, you’re right in there with her, perhaps even doing the same.
Then again, all of the horror doesn’t solely come from the camerawork. Lau’s put together an incredibly solid script, one that keeps the story contained, but also offers up enough fresh scares to maintain a full feature. She also doesn’t drown the first act of the film in exposition. Rather than wade in all the hairy details of the family’s history with the house, Lau simply glosses over them, giving us only what we need to believe the situation.
From then on, Silent House is Olsen’s film. Sure, her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene is impressive, but now that I’ve seen my second Olsen-starring piece, she’s undoubtedly a talented actress. Olsen makes Sarah an instantly likable character, a kind and caring daughter, but also someone with some quirks to her making her the slightest bit unpredictable. She also handles the shooting style brilliantly. It’s one thing to sustain a believable performance, but it’s another to do that and then worry about all the blocking that was likely involved in order to pull off the lengthy takes. While Stevens and Trese most certainly take the back seat, they deliver strong supporting performances, both of which contribute to our concern for Sarah.
Silent House’s only hitch is the ending and that doesn’t really stem from any script or performance issues. In fact, it’s at the tale end of the film that Olsen gets the opportunity to really show what she’s capable of and it’s quite incredible. The issue with the conclusion of Silent House is merely a matter of personal preference and what I find scary. It just so happens that the turn the film takes is far less terrifying to me than where I thought it was going.
Regardless, for anyone looking for a suspenseful experience, Silent House is a prime option, showcasing a stellar rising talent and taking something that could have been a mere gimmick and raising it to the level of an effective storytelling tool.