It is a rare thing when the best thing about a horror film is not its setting, hook or frequency of scares, but rather its lead performance. It may falter in other areas, but in this respect, Silent House is a refreshing anomaly. Yet be calm, horror diehards, because those earmarks I mentioned are potent as well. The one-take shooting style delivers constant tension, the “haunted” house serves as an ominous entity and there are plenty of thrills to be had in way of white-knuckle fright. In fact, if not for its final act, Silent House could have been something special. In spite of that blunder, however, there is plenty to appreciate in Elizabeth Olsen.Olsen garnered significant acclaim for her powerful debut performance in the little-seen Martha Marcy May Marlene and once again she is her film’s greatest asset. Having been constructed in one extended take (well, actually it’s eight long takes cleverly edited together) we’re never apart from Olsen’s Sarah and as such the camera lingers far longer than in any normal feature. This means she does not have the luxury to briefly emote and then recharge for the next scene but rather that the onus is on Olsen to practically live the experience of her character. It is not as restrained a performance as in “MMMM,” but is never less dominant.Of course the selling point of Silent House to its teenage demographic is not the presence of a little-known, acclaimed indie actor, but the “one shot” gimmick. This hook has been used before in fare such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and in 2002’s Russian Ark. In a horror setting, it serves to pump up the tension, seemingly raise the stakes and create an often suffocatingly claustrophobic 88 minutes.
It is too bad the tension here dissolves as exposition is spouted and truths are revealed toward the end. The hand-held camera technique also grows perfunctory to say the least. The ending itself is not horrendously bad (though it is more than a little odd), but rather than when the reveal is made the one-take gimmick actually serves as a detriment. Because we are with Sarah the entire time, the twist makes little sense, so what we are left with is a paradox: the film would suffer without the unique shooting style, but the twist in turn suffers because of it.Although the house itself is not as creepy as in gothic horror entries such as The Others or The Woman in Black from earlier this year, the setup is still clever. My previously concocted expression “the door paradox” (when bad things happen, people never just leave) is dealt with nicely. As the home is abandoned (and being prepped for repairs), the windows are boarded up, many of the doors locked, no landline phone to be found and the physical location of the house is not kind to cell phones. So while Silent House is not as atmospheric as other films of its ilk, the dread of the circumstance more than makes up for it.Silent House could actually be delivered as a found footage movie, but thankfully it's not, which makes it a modestly refreshing offering in the recently monotonous horror landscape. Silent House squarely lands in the “rent it” category of film quality and while there is a novelty to watching a fright flick in a crowded theater, this chiller simply isn’t strong enough stuff to warrant your 10-plus bucks. I’m sure many will find the ending more of a detriment to the overall film than I did, but the first two acts are relentless enough to please any horror aficionado.