Let's just get something out of the way off the top: Silent House creates the illusion that it's a haunted-house thriller crafted in one long, continuous shot. The camera follows Elizabeth Olsen around a creepy, creaky lake house that's under renovation and we're right there with her for every bump, jump and thump of her heart.
This isn't exactly the case, and husband-and-wife directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau acknowledge as much -- they actually pieced together several long takes to create one seemingly seamless feature-length film, a process that must have required a great deal of planning, choreography, breath-holding and prayer to pull off in its own right.
But once you realize that what you're watching is a trick -- albeit one that's beautifully executed from a technical standpoint -- with a final twist that's really a gimmick, its novelty loses a bit of its luster.
Still, Olsen always makes the movie watchable. She has to -- she appears in nearly every single frame -- and the fact that she's dressed in a flimsy, cleavage-baring T-shirt and frequently photographed from above doesn't hurt. Following her star-making performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which yours truly picked as the best film of 2011, Olsen continues to reveal a startling comfort and maturity in front of the camera for someone so young and relatively inexperienced. But the film's dexterous cinematographer, Igor Martinovic, is just as much of a star behind the lens.
In this Americanized version of the Uruguayan film La Casa Muda, Olsen stars as Sarah, a 20-something woman helping her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) fix up the family's longtime, dilapidated summer home in hopes of selling it. The place is boarded up from the inside, so it's pitch black even in the daytime, and anyone walking around must carry a lantern or flashlight to see where they're going. This is crucial to creating a sense of tension and fear: We all feel like we're wandering around in the dark together.
Kentis and Lau, who previously directed the stripped-down, 2004 hit thriller Open Water, offer an unsettling vibe from the beginning. It's clear that something disturbing has gone on here; in particular, the conversations between Sarah and her uncle are just a bit off in tone. A long-lost friend (Julia Taylor Ross) shows up with fond memories of playing together as little girls -- but strangely, Sarah can't even place her.
So it's no shocker that Sarah quickly comes undone in this claustrophobic setting as her paranoia escalates. It could happen to any of us, and here's a young woman who seems a bit shaky and lost already. Still, she reacts with relatable instinctiveness as things go from bad to worse, her breath creating a rhythmic soundtrack as she scampers through hallways and up and down stairs, trying to find a way out.
Silent House features several genuine scares and giggle-inducing jumps -- and, since this isn't your typically over-edited contemporary horror movie, they don't feel screechy or cheap. One sequence, in which the flashes from a Polaroid camera provide a room's only light, offers a tantalizing, mounting feeling of fear.
But once the ultimate twist is revealed, you may find yourself feeling frustrated -- or even disgusted -- rather than frightened.
Silent House, an Open Road release, is rated R for disturbing violent content and terror.
Running time: 88 minutes
Rating: Two and a half stars out of four