Found-footage filmmaking has been all the rage in horror films for the past few years, with the Paranormal Activity franchise and its innumerable variants making enthusiastic use of the cheap but effective vérité technique for conjuring scares. Silent House, the new (well, somewhat new) thriller from the husband-and-wife directing team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, may not technically be found-footage, but its hand-held "captured in real time" approach achieves essentially the same effect, minus the idiotic faux disclaimers attesting to its ''authenticity.''
Presented as a single, 88-minute take without any visible editing (think Alfred Hitchcock's Rope), Silent House stars Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) as Sarah, a somewhat aloof young girl staying with her father (Adam Trese) as he and his brother (Eric Sheffer Stevens) renovate their family's waterfront vacation home in preparation for its sale. After years of neglect, the house has fallen into disrepair, lacking electricity, phone lines, or much of anything else that might possibly aid a girl in surviving a home invasion, the potential for which is made abundantly clear in the film's opening act.
And just who might wish to pay Sarah an unwelcome visit? Silent House's script, written by Lau, offers any number of likely suspects, from the vandals who've repeatedly trashed the vacation home to the unsavory ex-boyfriend who's recently resurfaced in Sarah's life. And that supposed "childhood friend" who paid her an ominous visit can't possibly have good intentions. Oh, and let's not forget the simmering feud between Sarah's father and uncle, the fallout from which is bound to turn one of them homicidal. Perhaps they'll all join forces and form some kind of supergroup, the Power Station of sociopaths.
Whoever they are, they're exceedingly ill-tempered, as Sarah learns when she happens upon her bloodied father in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Sounds of footsteps signal that his attacker(s) is near, and soon Sarah is engaged in a terrifying game of hide-and-seek, scrambling about the house to evade capture.
Generous kudos must be paid to cameraman Igor Martinovic, who works in lock-step with Olsen in Silent House, trailing close behind as she darts up and down the stairs, peering over her shoulder as she gingerly opens a door, and training on her face as she grimaces in silent terror, trying to contain her panic as her unseen tormentor approaches. There are times, however, when Silent House could use a steadier hand. During some of the film's more frantic moments, the action becomes so hopelessly frenzied as to turn cinema vérité into cinema vomité.
Silent House's ''captured in real time'' gimmick is exceedingly well-executed, with hidden cuts spread pretty much seamlessly throughout the film. (Of course, the fact that I spent a good deal of time scanning for said hidden cuts testifies to its potential to become a distraction.) Lau and Kentis establish a steady build-and-release rhythm with the tension while dropping in subtle clues here and there as to the motives behind the mayhem.
The success or failure of Silent House ultimately hinges on the efforts of Olsen, who quite impressively shoulders the burden of inhabiting nearly every frame of the film. Olsen is significantly more nuanced than your typical scream-queen, and it's her performance alone that holds the film aloft during its more ludicrous moments.
Good as she is, Olsen can't hope to rescue the film's poorly conceived third act. Over a year removed from its 2011 Sundance debut, Silent House saw its ending thoroughly rejiggered in preparation for its theatrical release, with the final 15 minutes replaced entirely. In its existing iteration, the film abruptly takes leave of its senses during the climax, with a flurry of preposterous twists and revelations that are only frightening in their abject inanity.
Click here to hear Elizabeth Olsen talk about Silent House's arduous shooting process in our exclusive interview.
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Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.