'Open Water' directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau return to Sundance this year with 'Silent House,' a horror flick whose main point of interest is that it was filmed in one continuous shot. Unlike some of its shaky camera brethren 'Paranormal Activity' and 'The Blair Witch Project,' 'House' looks and feels more artsy than your typical midnight fare, but its hollow characters and unraveling plot quickly undermine a promising premise.
In 'Silent House,' Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) returns with her father to their family vacation home to finish renovating and packing before putting the house on the market. The house, however, is far from ready; it's leaking and moldy, the electricity doesn't work, and all its windows are boarded up because local squatters broke them. From the very first glimpse of her, it's apparent that there's something not quite right with Sarah; her shoulders hunch down in a way that's meant to make her seem smaller, she has headaches, and, as she tells a creepy neighbor who claims to be former childhood playmate, her memory is full of holes.
Sarah and school "don't get along," so she works for her father, who is alternately chummy, infantilizing, and controlling. "If everyone just did what I said, no one would get hurt," he remarks almost cheerily as they drink beer. And then there's her uncle Peter, who has the whole "you've grown up so much thing" happening, even though he looks like he's only a few years older than she is. After Daddy dearest and Peter get into a tiff, Peter drives off in a huff, leaving the father and daughter alone in the old house.
As Sarah begins to pack up her old childhood things -- tutus, a strange red locked box that she rattles, tries to open, and then dismisses -- she begins hearing noises. When her father goes to investigate, something or someone attacks him, leaving it up to Sarah to figure out how to escape and get help. There are logistical problems to her escape, of course, but there are also mental ones; is she actually wily and tough enough to make it on her own without Daddy calling the shots? Is she strong enough to put away her childish things and act like an adult?
The majority of the movie is made up of jump scares and shadowy figures stalking the house while Sarah hides just out of sight, her face frozen in a teary rictus of fear. The one-shot technique is both incredibly effective in amping up the claustrophobia of the film but also somewhat distracting at first; it also produces some unnervingly lovely sequences. Olsen (yes, she's related to Mary-Kate and Ashley) works well with what she's given; she easily portrays someone who is lost and possibly losing it, and her emotional openness combined with the camerawork carries the movie. The dialogue earned numerous laughs from the audience, which included industry insiders, press, and Sundance volunteers. At one point, one character squats over a bloodstain and remarks, "Well, [this person]'s not here." Duh, dude. The big reveal comes off as cheap and ham-fisted -- if you hadn't already guessed what it would be from the first few minutes, of course.
'Silent House' is based on 'La Casa Muda,' a Uruguayan film that uses the same one-shot technique and the old "based on a true story!" canard. It's unclear whether or not 'Silent House' purports to be based on a true story (or just based on something based on a true story?) or why Lau and Kentis chose or were approached to remake it. The characters and dialogue are so wooden that once we get over the fascination of the camerawork and spooky bits and the true ghosts in the story are revealed, this 'House' falls apart like a pack of cards.