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REVIEW: Silent House

Elizabeth Olsen in Silent House

Spoiler alert: the only good actors all have only x-chromosomes.

I’m gonna be honest straight off the top here: I’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Being even more honest, I expect the kind of people who obsessively cruise film blogs to understand what I mean there and why I’m saying it now, but I don’t expect that of people I actually want to write for–so I’ll explain myself. Rope is a film that takes place in real time over 80 minutes as actions unfold and suspense builds and everything gets worse. At least, I assume all that last stuff after the word “minutes”. The point is, it’s shot, cut and projected in such a way as to give the illusion of being a single 80 minute reel of film unfolding before your eyes. Silent House, from the couple who brought you Open Water, is also shot and cut to present the illusion of being one uninterrupted take. It’s also being marketed with the gimmick of being the 88-minute, one take horror movie. Don’t tell anyone else, okay? It’ll be our little secret.

Elizabeth “sister-to-the-twins” “Martha-May-Marcy-Marlene” Olsen is a young woman by the name of Sara, who is living with her father at her family’s old lake house, finishing up emptying the place out and packing everything into boxes before they sell it. She, her father and her uncle are all carrying around lanterns because the house has no power. After a visit from a girlhood friend, freaky things start happening in the house. Polaroids are left out, with both father and uncle quickly hiding them; she finds a red tin box she can’t open; there are lots of lingering shots on Things That Will Be Important Later. For a one-take movie, it sure has a lot of shots. And the house has a lot of doors that can’t or shouldn’t be opened (that will be). And while the film is getting warmed up, it’s nice to pretend it’s just a thriller, instead of a profoundly dark movie that still has me looking over my shoulders.

Sure enough, her uncle goes into town to cool off after a flare-up between siblings and she nearly immediately gets split up from her father, leaving her to navigate a house that can’t provide power to its lightbulbs with only an electric lantern to defend herself with. If you’ve played Silent Hill 2 or Amnesia, you know the feeling they’re evoking here–impossible terror due to ultimate vulnerability. There is no way you picture Ms. Olsen rolling out of a fight unscathed. You just know that when Bad Things Start Happening, she will be assaulted emotionally and physically and you are right there with her. Credit for that goes to Ms. Olsen herself.

Everybody keeps telling me I should see Martha May Marcy Marlene. Having no interest in… whatever that independent drama is about, I was far more intrigued by Olsen’s appearance in a low budget horror movie billed on its real-time gimmick. And with not a trace of understatement, this is the brightest future I’ve seen for an actor since I first saw Caleb Landry Jones in The Last Exorcism. She grounds this film in an emotional reality so perfectly that you don’t even realize she’s doing it with a camera between 2 and 24 inches from her face at pretty much all times. If you really want to see an actor for who they are, see them in a horror movie. When everyone on set is doing everything possible to make every other part of the movie look good, leaving you largely to your own devices, you’ve got a tough job. Couple that with being engagingly frightened for hours on end a day with a camera a foot away from your face, and the people who pull it off deserve Oscars. Olsen pulls it off.

I’ve been reading Roger Ebert’s A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length, his new collection of negative reviews, and he’s said twice now that horror films are great entry-level movies for directors trying to gain greater exposure and demonstrate their technical capabilities. The genre’s low budgets and non-celebrity audience hooks make it great for that. But if a low-budget horror flick is supposed to be a knock at the door, then directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have been on the doorstep for nearly 10 years now after their incredibly powerful Open Water. I’ve really only seen two or three shark movies in my time, but Open Water is a movie I saw at 14 that has stuck with me for eight years for providing a chilling portrait of people driven to despair while being assaulted by horrors and isolated from society. Reduced to those three elements, the movies are remarkably similar, and if Mr. Kentis and Ms Lau were to keep making low-budget indie horror movies like these, I’d be immensely satisfied.

Of course, if they ever graduate to the big leagues, that’d be nice too.

In short, Silent House is a movie that I expected to be a dancing bear. It doesn’t matter if the bear dances well, it matters that the bear dances at all. In the end, it turned out to be a world-class breakdancer performing a 90 minute solo routine that was truly delightful to see–while he wore a bear costume. Did the one-take gimmick add to the movie? Yes. Did it make it unique in a sea of other horror films from the last ten years? Yes. Would it have been worse without it? Yes.

But will I ever stop wondering what it would’ve been like if it didn’t try to look like it was shot in one take? There’s the question. THREE STARS

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