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Family Movie Review: Silent House (R)

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MPAA Rating: R       Length: 85 minutes

Age Appropriate for: 15+. Scares, or the unnerving absence thereof, lurk around every corner, accompanied by the occasional and arguably justifiable expletive. Some blood and bludgeoning ensues. Murderousness aside, the story also contains thematic elements of a disturbing nature. (For more information, you can scroll to the end of this review for an unavoidably plot-spoiling content note.)

Silent House takes a meandering but occasionally innovative stroll toward horror. Rising star Elizabeth Olsen proves she has the acting chops to build and sustain a character with real emotions in real time.

By Jared Peterson

In many ways, “Silent House” isn’t that different from dozens of other thrillers out there, what with its sobbing, bosomy heroine and lantern-lit tours of cursed real estate. But it employs a unique structure that contributes to both its most intriguing and its most tedious attributes.

When young, aimless teen Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen, star of “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) comes round to help her father and uncle clean out and flip the family’s crumbling waterfront vacation home, she gets more than just a stroll down memory lane. Walking the decaying halls and sifting through dusty clutter, Sarah first senses, then investigates, discovers, and is finally stalked and tormented by some malevolent force that seems to connect to aspects of her dimly remembered childhood. Whether the disturbances are real or imagined, supernatural or merely criminal, is part of the tension and the mystery which draws us slowly, oh so slowly, through 80 or so minutes of real-time horror.

A remake of the 2010 Uruguayan film “La Casa Muda,” “Silent House” doesn’t flaunt or overuse its cinematic gimmick. (In truth, its single shot is actually made up of several extended shots, impressively choreographed and filmed by directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau and cinematographer Igor Martinovic, and strung together in postproduction). Most of the time, the single-take is easily forgotten, disappearing into the texture and rhythm of the film. Its effects are most notable in sequences where the camera stays locked on Elizabeth Olsen’s face, unwaveringly focusing on her slow melt into fear. Especially in horror, cutaways serve as subtle reminders that what we’re seeing isn’t real. With no cutting between how Sarah looks and what Sarah sees, we’re denied a degree of separation we’ve come to take for granted.

Olsen does an impressive job handling her largely uninterrupted screen time. In a more conventional film, some of her expressions and noises (her quaking sobs occasionally sound a little too much like a throaty laugh) might have ended up on the cutting room floor. Olsen’s portrayal of fear, over its many twists and turns, never seems false or overplayed. In comparison, the performances from Adam Trese as Sarah’s father and Eric Sheffer Stevens as her uncle, are flat and hollow. It’s especially painful to watch Stevens try, and fail, to breathe life into lines that are essentially stage directions: “Here, take this,” “Let’s go together,” and the like.

“Silent House” starts slowly and drags in the several stretches where there is little dialogue and lots of very careful door opening. These portions are almost sleep-inducing, as we wait in increasingly weary anticipation for something to go bump in the night. The problem with 85 minutes of real time is you realize how long 85 minutes really is. There are quicker, tighter haunted house flicks out there. If anything, Elizabeth Olsen is the reason to venture into this attraction.

 (WARNING: Spoiler below)

Content note: The spooky events of the movie eventually reveal a character’s repressed memories of incest and child abuse; a flashback of sorts gives hints of how that abuse played out.

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