Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), a quiet and cagey teenager, returns to her family’s holiday home with her father, John (Adam Trese), and uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), to ready it for sale. After an argument erupts and Peter leaves, Sarah and her father are left alone in the boarded up house, with no electricity and only candlelight to see by. When Sarah starts to hear odd noises from above, her father is sent to investigate, heralding a series of traumatic events as Sarah is left in a house full of secrets.
For the most part, Silent House is a cleverly eerie and concentrated exercise of tension. The screenwriters, though not bombarding us with details of Sarah or her family’s background, allow us to warm to these characters quietly. Sarah in particular is honed in on, as peculiar things start to happen and she’s thrown into an unprecedented situation of life and death. Unfortunately, as the film enters its second half, and what’s happening falls into a pattern of cliches that mostly undo what came before , it becomes clear that Laura Lau doesn’t have the expertise as a screenwriter to develop a narrative, horror or not, that’s entirely consistent and true to itself. It’s as if the further into Sarah’s mind we’re led, the less focused Lau’s writing becomes.
It’s a disappointment as, in spite of the obvious wariness many people have when a film claims to come bearing a distinctive style – this one is apparently told in real time as one unbroken shot – Lau and Chris Kentis are clearly skilled, with most of their work here raising above the flaky narrative. Their direction here is succinct and competent and does well to remove many of the discernable tricks and artifices that come into play when making an entry into the often theatrical horror genre. Whether it be a fact or not, the one-shot technique adds a remarkable intimacy to Sarah’s nightmarish situation, with the curveballs, no matter how predictable, often uprooting a shock or two.
Olsen, in only her second role as leading lady, does everything in her power to ensure her turn as the inscrutable Sarah doesn’t fall foul to the inconsistencies that harbour the script, and she pulls it off. What Sarah was like prior to the particular night in question may be left fuzzy, but there’s no shadow of a doubt that she’s a complex, deeply disturbed woman – traits made all the more evident and beneficial to the effect the story as a whole has on the audience by Olsen’s willingness to bequeath her talents to the role absolutely.
While it may prove to be more irksome than discomforting, Silent House is nonetheless a solidly unsettling and cleverly executed piece of filmmaking that basks in its ability to unnerve its audience through Sarah’s mounting terror and deteriorating state of mind. It’s not as inevitive as it thinks it is, but Olsen, skilled direction and a restrained score ensure there’s enough here to draw intrigue and not completely waste the pronounced talent on display.