As cheap little chillers go, Silent House is one of the good ones. The haunted House may be a built on a shaky foundation, but its scare tactics are sound, and its gimmickry is enough to stand out in a crowded genre neighborhood.
Like its predecessor, this remake of the 2010 Uruguayan film La casa muda ("The Silent House") bears an unavoidable stylistic similarity to Alfred Hitchock's Rope. Hitch's 1948 film stitched together just ten takes to give the appearance of seamless action, while Silent House goes Hitchcock one better by using digital technology to create a more convincing illusion of continuous action (while trick-editing is possible here and there, the action shows no obvious edit points until some late-breaking light flickering).
Beyond the exploitable stunt appeal of realistic real-time, the approach well-suits this things-that-go-bump thrill ride. The story begins just outside a summer home bordered by shoreline and woods, where college student Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene) meets her father and uncle (respectively, Adam Trese and Eric Sheffer Stevens, whose wooden turns do the film no favors). Of late, they've been working together to renovate the house, but matters take a nasty turn when strange noises and a violent attack demonstrate to left-alone Sarah that she has everything to fear.
The shaky-cam's proximity to Sarah solves the dullness problem that plagued The Woman in Black's house-wandering longeurs. Generally, we're in Sarah's face or right behind her as she explores the house and her options; thus, we're primed for maximum audience identification. Outfitted in traditionally bosomy "scream queen" garb, Olsen reminds us of horror's past even as the film suggests it might have something excitingly fresh to bring to a moribund genre.
When directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (the shark nail-biter Open Water) run out of Rope towards the end of the film's hide-and-seek phase, the story freakishly breaks open its realism to reveal the psychological expressionism of symbolic horrors, the flatly possible suddenly in-your-face impossible. In that moment of puzzlement, audiences will get a charge of invention. The moment passes, and the film quickly makes its way to bothersomely mundane answers predicated on a worn-out cliché, but that Kentis and Lau so effectively build to the aforementioned moment is something of a post-millennial coup.
Just as a comedy can be judged by its laugh quotient, the bottom line for a horror movie is whether it's scary or just cause for eye-rolling. Silent House may disappoint in the end, but not before it serves up plenty of armrest-gripping situations, including a life-and-death sequence lit only by Polaroid flashes (don't blink!). Certainly, die-hard horror fans will want to take the tour of this mystery House.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]