“Silent House” is a patently false name for a horror film with so many loud, wild, untamed narrative animals tromping around. It might as well be called “Jumanji.”
There are leering, weaselly male characters whose gestures and utterances drip with shady secrecy. They lead us to the elephant in the room that something’s a little off about the hesitant, shifty-eyed way Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) acts with people. And a bull-in-a-china-shop climax boasts enough wildly embarrassing moments to cancel out what few things “Silent House” does well.
There’s just no other way to describe vaginal symbolism via blood-gushing urinal.
Too arty to settle for home-invasion scares a la “The Strangers” and too laughably literal for “The Descent’s” unsettling uterine subtext, all that’s left in “Silent House” is an impressive technical exercise.
Its lone distinctive trait is that it appears to be filmed in one single, continuous take over 88 minutes. There is surely digital trickery during occasional dips to blackness in an electricity-free house. But you’ll be hard-pressed to spot them amid enervating visuals, frequently lit by interrogatory LED lights that bewitchingly play off Olsen’s peach-sized cheekbones and spindly eyelashes. It’s a helluva business card for cinematographer Igor Martinovic.
Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau are best known for 2003’s equally gimmicky “Open Water.” The ways in which that overrated thriller’s conceit of using real-life sharks trumped its content seems to have simply been a warm-up for the wackiness of “Silent House.”
In many ways, it’s a more exploitative version of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — the enigmatic 2011 film that established Elizabeth as the only Olsen sister worth any continued attention. It isn’t just the scenes of Olsen on the water (clothed here, mind you), but in how its horrors are infected by a specific strain of violence.
“Martha” sustained a challenging air of mystery throughout. The first act of “Silent” goes so far out of its way to seem innocuous, we’re certain it can’t possibly be. The isolated, dilapidated summer home Sarah is helping her dad, John (Adam Trese), and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) fix up has bigger problems than rotting mold we see or the vagrants we hear about.
Shortly after Peter makes a run into town, John is brutally bludgeoned by … someone. And Sarah must hide from the hulking, seemingly faceless figures that stalk her and swipe at her legs under tables and beds.
Sadly, Olsen is asked to do little more than simulate dread with pantomimed silent screams, rampant hyperventilation and snot-sticky mewling noises. Other than a key moment where she finds a curious balance between a cry and a cackle, Sarah is a run-of-the-mill blood-spattered damsel. Such roles are rites of passage that become ruts for unlucky young actresses. Let’s hope this is Olsen’s only wasted effort.
As “Silent House” drags on, Sarah and her story become increasingly illogical and unreliable. Every sneaking suspicion you have will come to pass. And in a visually striking sequence involving a Polaroid flash as Sarah’s only source of light, “Silent House” comes into its true focus — a film structured on style, not substance.