The setup for Silent House is a promising one taken from Uruguay's entry for foreign language film at the Oscars, La Casa Muda. A young woman (Martha/Marcy May/Marlene herself, Elizabeth Olsen, who is stunning in as thankless a lead role as you'll see all year) in an isolated multilevel house starts out trying to pack away old things and clean up a decaying family property, and she ends up running for her life from a mysterious intruder that yearns to shed some blood.
The trailers build directly off the ad campaign for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (both original and sacrilege, er, remake). “Real terror presented in real time,” they promise, which sets the film up for a landing it can't possibly stick. The hidden edits aren't that well hidden, but more damaging are the listings for the "additional photography" that litter the end credits.
So if it isn't real time, can it possibly be real terror? The Uruguayan original was based on an actual case from the '40s, so there's certainly some basis in calling that real terror. But that's not the case with the current incarnation taking up residence in multiplexes across the country. Most of Silent House is looking and hiding, with some intermittent running.
The key to making a single-take structure (or even the illusion of one) work is to let the urgency of the situation be the engine of the film. You can have all the artistic flourishes you want along the way, so long as the experience remains enthralling. But a good half-hour or so of this film is deadly boring, and that is the kind of blow a horror film can't weather. And this is certainly a horror film, though not in the way that most people expect. Its horrors are rooted in some deeply unpleasant territory, and it tries to walk a fine line between exploitative and illuminative.
It's in this area that the American version defiantly sets itself apart from the Spanish-language original. But while this new version has a visceral kick that triggers an adrenaline-soaked reptilian brain response, it doesn't have the magic-realist elegance of its predecessor. Even so, neither version is essential viewing. Everything that this film is good at, you can get from renting Martha Marcy May Marlene or checking out the supremely underrated Gone at the local second-run house. Both of those films also deal with women under siege, and both of them don't try to bore or icky the audience into submission.
Truthfully, the biggest problem with Silent House is its inconsistent focus — literally. I appreciate the running and ducking and dodging that Steadicam operators have to do to make a film work, but this film has such consistent issues with maintaining focus that I'm left to assume it was either a stylistic choice or a fault in the camera set-up.
The next biggest problem with Silent House is that it isn't really that scary in its use of physical space or its real-time gimmick. What works is Elizabeth Olsen's performance, and the way it incorporates some weird psychotherapeutic concepts in its use of time and space. Realism is not where the strength of the material lies.
As an exorcism of trauma and a portrayal of a psyche under siege, Silent House has a few interesting facets to recommend. But as an example of spooky house cinema, it just doesn't deliver. The exception is a sequence in which a generator fails and the only way our heroine can make her way through the house is by periodically taking a Polaroid, the light from the flash bursting the oppressive darkness of the image. As soon as it starts, you know there's going to be a moment when that flash shows us something monstrous. And the waiting for that moment is the most delirious kind of ecstasy. Then comes the scare — and it's back to more of the same. Our expectations are double-edged swords, in that respect.