Monday, March 5, 2012

Silent House

A House With Some Horrific, Real-Time Secrets

Lizzie Olsen as Sarah and Eric Sheffer Stevens as Peter in "Silent House", directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau. 
Open Road


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, March 5
, 2012

Opening this evening for special simultaneous nationwide screenings before its wide release in the U.S. and Canada on Friday, "Silent House" is an exercise in intelligent horror, delivering 88 minutes of real-time discoveries in one "unbroken" camera shot.  Before their lakefront house goes on the market Sarah (Lizzie Olsen) helps her father (Adam Trese) renovate the house, which sits innocently in the upstate New York country.  Sarah's uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) helps out.  A friend of Sarah's visits.  Sarah appears not to know who she is.

Directed by husband-wife filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, "Silent House" is based on Gustavo Hernandez's 2010 Uruguayan horror film "La Casa Muda", about true events in a house in Uruguay in the 1940s.  Ms. Lau (who wrote the screenplay) and Mr. Kentis specialize in creating terror in open spaces, making horror in the open an intimate experience because of the immediacy and peculiarity of direct, dire situations.  Their previous film "Open Water" was a chilling, nail-biting drama also suggested by a true story of two scuba divers inadvertently left behind by a crew, floating in vast, shark-infested waters.

In "Silent House" events happen without the typical scares engineered in the horror genre.  The directors envelope their main characters, Sarah, and the spacious house, in sounds and atmosphere.  There's a sensual accounting of the house by both Sarah and the filmmakers, who inventory each creak, padlock and closet with suspenseful deliberation as Sarah intrepidly wanders through the darkness.  Ms. Olsen projects genuine fear and dread as Sarah with expressions that convey concern and smarts.  Sarah knows the house she's in is haunted, but by what?  Sarah is tentative, skeptical, but always ahead of her father and uncle, both unfazed by the fuss.  The male duo appear to mock the horror genre: a smirk grows on John's face as he climbs the stairs into the darkness to appease Sarah, who wants him to investigate a noise she hears.  There's detachment for Sarah from the house as she creeps around with a lantern.  How well does she know this house she's lived in?

Relying on some of the better horror films like "Repulsion" and Alfred Hitchcock's classics, "Silent House" is relatively pedestrian, with lots of patience and discipline, and because it takes its time to ingratiate us with its look at, or undressing of the house, for large periods of time little appears to be happening.  As with any solid horror film the true scares are in the mind, and "Silent House" -- littered with the innuendo and subtlety shouted in horror films overtly fusing sex and violence ala the "Friday The 13th" series -- is careful, measured and dedicated to creating suspense not only in its silences (there are multiple non-dialogue scenes) but in the expectation of finding things in open frame space.  One of the best things about "Silent House" is how peaceful and genteel it is almost all the way through.  The camerawork creating much of the film's suspense is hand-held digital and Steadicam.  You often don't notice that the "one shot" is more a series of seamless takes.

Ms. Olsen is the main reason to see "Silent House".  Onscreen virtually every second, she anchors us in Sarah's turmoil and panic.  We're invested in Sarah from first sight, and in some ways we are her, perhaps even inside her.  Sarah's internal soundtrack is pronounced heavy breathing.  We constantly hear her heaving and gasping.  As Sarah investigates the house for noises and bumps that don't belong in some respects she is searching herself.  Ms. Olsen, an attractive, cerebral actress who subtly conveys awareness and intelligence in every move here, does some of the things she did so well in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" last year (including running like the dickens), but in "Silent House" her Sarah is fully aware of who she is, if not what the terror in the house is saying to her.  Ms. Olsen infuses Sarah with bravery, strength, caution and an effective mix of palpable fear and reasoned intelligence.  She does so well what Daniel Radcliffe failed to do in the conventional horror film "The Woman In Black": connect the audience to character and story in ways that you feel participatory and allied to the character's cause.

Ms. Olsen continues to do good things on the silver screen and may yet become the best young American actress of her generation.  She stars in "Liberal Arts" and "Red Lights", both expected this year on the big screen, and additional films will follow.  Her talent is promising.  Her acting ability isn't a fluke.  Lizzie Olsen is the real deal.

Ms. Lau cleverly twists "Silent House" to make a film about fear, memory, pain and torment.  There are exquisite symbolic episodes and motifs dangled like artifacts.  There's one in particular involving a car that says it all, but to explain more would be to rain on a parade that this smart, quiet film hardly deserves.  "Silent House" won't blow you away or jolt you like the talky, visceral "Paranormal Activity" did, but it stands firmly on its own as a thinking person's horror movie, a good exercise in thought-provoking horror.  It's an impressive, moderate effort that will gain currency in the years to come.

With: Julia Taylor Ross, Adam Barnett, Haley Murphy.

Note: In this video review below, Ms. Olsen's character's name is incorrect.  It is Sarah, not Laura.

"Silent House" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for disturbing violent content and terror.  The film's running time is one hour and 28 minutes.

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