A horror movie that works cuts through analysis, shrugs off opinions and snobbery, and eschews complexity — either in technique or in budget. You know it works when the hairs on the back of your neck rise. It's a visceral reaction you can't control. You know it works when others in the audience — as if moved by the spirit — talk back to the screen.
In Silent House, Elizabeth Olsen is an Olsen sibling with big-screen charisma. The Martha Marcy May Marlene star and film-festival darling is the "girl in jeopardy" in this "girl in jeopardy" thriller, set in a family's creaky old lake house that they're about to sell.
That's really all that's necessary — a girl, suddenly alone in a dark house in the middle of nowhere. Dad (Adam Trese) was there. But he went upstairs to check out a noise and disappeared. Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) took off with the only car. There's no power, no phone, no "Can you hear me now?" bars. And someone, or something, is plainly in the house with her.
Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, remaking an Argentinean film based on a Uruguayan story, establish that it's still light outside in the real-time terror that unfolds around Sarah (Olsen). But inside the boarded-up house, it's dark. Lanterns and flashlights illuminate the spooky rooms. The filmmakers spent too much money on a fancy opening crane shot and too little on the jittery but often effective hand-held photography that is standard practice in horror since The Blair Witch Project. The field of vision is limited to what Sarah can see right in front of her, never more than when she must use a Polaroid flash to illuminate a pitch-black room. Music and sound effects are used sparingly; Sarah's screams are kept to a minimum.
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They give away where they're going with this too easily —what are the men not telling her? — and test the patience of the "Don't go in there" crowd by making Sarah mostly passive and her actions seemingly illogical. And the movie's third act strips away its mysteries, much to its detriment.
But those aren't fatal failings for a movie whose terror can be read in every silent scream on Olsen's gorgeous face, served up in more extreme close-ups than you can count.
Sarah hides under tables and beds. The "intruder" — whose face we never see — seems to lose interest in chasing her from time to time. Sarah doesn't scream for help. She doesn't pick up anything she could use to defend herself. With all the doors to the place padlocked, weak little Sarah can't force her way out into the light. She must go into this room or that basement, fearfully clutching a light, to escape.
Olsen is not playing a variation of plucky Jamie Leigh Curtis in Halloween. She plays Sarah as paralyzed, with paroxysms of fear that have her stifling screams, gulping because she keeps forgetting to breathe. That makes her the perfect surrogate for the horror-movie fan, overwhelmed by what is happening, stunned into inaction by a confrontation with what could be the supernatural, and deaf — stone deaf — to the shouts from the audience of "Don't go in there" and "Get out from under that bed."