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Theatrical Review: Elizabeth Olsen gets really scared in SILENT HOUSE

Rachel Fox

March 9th, 2012

Elizabeth Olsen is really, really good at playing really, really scared. If her turn in last year's MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE wasn't enough to persuade you, her performance in SILENT HOUSE will.

Sarah (Olsen) is helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) prepare their old, semi-abandoned lake house for sale. More like a labyrinthine mansion than a typical family cottage, the house is in a state of disrepair; besides rampant mold and a rodent situation that has rendered the power unreliable, pesky human squatters have left the place a mess. If that wasn't enough to convince that the house was a total write-off, weirdo neighbor Sophie (Julia Taylor Ross) breaks all kinds of socially accepted rules of  decorum and etiquette when she pops by for an unannounced visit. Clearly, it's time to move.

SILENT HOUSE shares much with the Uruguayan film upon which it is based, LA CASA MURDA, including its being billed as a film that features "real fear in real time." Technically, the film is a wonderful accomplishment; it's beautiful to watch while simultaneously feeling included by the constant free form movement of the camera, oblivious to carefully disguised edit points that support a totally natural and believable series of events  within the confines of the house. The relationship between SILENT HOUSE's cinematography and editing is very much its own character in the film.

Olsen holds her own here - long sequences in which we follow her, illuminated only by the flashlight she is carrying, create a feeling of intimacy. The house in which she wanders is both claustrophobic and expansive; coupled with the length of otherwise uneventful sequences, directors Chris Lentis and Laura Lau succeed in cultivating a feeling of eerie, quiet tension that builds from Olsen's reactive performance.  Her subtlety is powerful.

The disconnect between Olsen's (seeming) isolation within the confines of the old manor  home is critical; she is alone but somehow not. The weight of her fear and paranoia builds at a slow, deliberate, steady pace. The house itself is both ugly and unwelcoming without being overtly clear as to why; boldly patterned wallpaper adorn the walls which sport an unusual number of mirrors. It is explained that "squatters" broke all the windows that have since been boarded up so the the only access to and from the house  is through doors that require keys.  Sarah's quietly chaotic surroundings envelop her, and by extension, us. The pressing sense of anxiety and stifling claustrophopia builds until being finally acknowledged.

The cinematic approach notwithstanding, the best thing about the film is Olsen's natural, progressive performance.  Her ability to believably convey fear and absolute terror  in dark, empty, confined spaces is impressive;  it had me wondering if she had been aggressively taunted by her older twin sisters as a child.

Although I will admit to one serious scream (and one not-so-serious one), SILENT HOUSE is thrilling without being under-your-skin scary, which is what I was really hoping for.  By the time the obligatory strange little girl (if only they'd been twins!) started magically appearing out of nowhere my interest had started to wane. The unsatisfying, weak resolution has a lot more to do with classic notions of female hysteria that interest me a lot less than those based in, say, reality. I'd draw a comparison here to a Spanish film called KIDNAPPED, which shares a similar "home invasion" premise (and "real time" feel) but whose cold, banal ending is far more effective.

SILENT HOUSE was good fun to visit, but I doubt I'll be going back anytime soon.


Grade: B

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