The foundations of Silent House are laid atop La Casa Muda, a nil-budget 2010 Uruguayan horror film that enjoyed an afterlife in international film festivals. It is not surprising that La Casa Muda was hastily snapped up for an English-language remake, for the concept is the sort of low-overhead, trend-conscious stuff that canny execs hope will translate readily into the international language of box office.
The setup is straightforward: A college-age young woman, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), is on break and helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) renovate the remote, no-cell-phone-reception lake house where they once vacationed as a family. Then Uncle storms off after a round of fraternal bickering, Dad disappears with the keys after going upstairs to investigate a mysterious thump — there have been drifters and vandals about — and Sarah is left to fend for herself, playing hide-and-seek in a locked, boarded-up house with a half-glimpsed, uninvited guest who makes the floorboards groan ominously and seizes at her with pale arms from out of frame.
The hook, as in La Casa Muda, is that Silent House's action unfolds in 88 minutes of unedited screen time, in what appears for all purposes to be one continuous take. (Tagline: "Real Fear Captured in Real Time.") This plays into the contemporary mania among horror movies for sustaining a pretense of verisimilitude while going one better than the much-flogged dead horses of the surveillance-camera (Paranormal Activity) and found-footage (The Blair Witch Project) films, which even the most passive audiences should begin to rebel against after being exposed to lazy cash-ins like, say, The Devil Inside.
Vigilant viewers will note the seam of at least one on-screen cut in Silent House, but the "single" take is regardless an impressive feat of choreography, the bravura stunt of Hitchcock's Rope adapted to the greater mobility and footage capacity of digital cameras. Olsen goes through an exhausting cycle of panicked breakdowns followed by attempts to override and overmaster her hyperventilation, gulping back her screams to conceal her location. Using a shallow depth of field, cinematographer Igor Martinovic keeps the menace ever on the threshold of visibility, while co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who had their own Cinderella-story thriller with their last film, 2003's Open Water, manage to sustain a tempo without an editor's tools.
The maintenance of the single, unrelieved take makes the viewer a participant in Sarah's ordeal: When the movie is really working, you absorb her mounting claustrophobia as she rushes from one barred avenue of escape to another and, looking for a useful weapon, find yourself scanning each newly entered room along her eye line.
But is punishment by proxy the highest that horror movies can aspire to? In single-mindedly concentrating on headlong "immediacy," reality-horror filmmakers have tended to lose, in their rush, the indelible image, those moments that puncture the mind and leave a festering wound after the credits roll, the transcriptions of nightmares we didn't know we had. The first image of Silent House, in which the camera looks down from on high at Sarah on a rocky outcropping before craning down to ground level and entering into the action, is also the last really composed image in the film. Silent House's nearest attempt to induce a shiver of the uncanny? The hallucinatory appearance of a vulval toilet, bleeding.
That symbolic image pops up as Silent House's second bit of gimmickry falls into place, a psychological twist that endeavors to explain Sarah's spaciness and why Dad seems vaguely unlikable (aside from Trese's quite terrible performance). This dredges up old memories from within the house, a dark secret that is so often the dark secret these days that it seems it will be the dark secret in every movie made hereafter. (Sometimes one longs for the corny old motives that ghosts and goblins used to have — buried treasure, the curse of a jilted lover, "Bring me back my Tailypo!" — before audiences became "sophisticated" by learning about repressed memory from daytime talk shows.) By this point, even the nimbleness of the film's staging can't overcome a creeping monotony, and Olsen's performance loses its bearings — as a portrait of victim psychology, Amanda Seyfried's work in the decidedly unflashy Gone is of much greater interest. Silent House does superficially spiff up the haunted-house movie, but it's not built to last.