Even if Silent House had turned out as grimy, gory and stupid as much of its terrorplex ilk, the film would still be an achievement simply owing to its construction. Magnetic star Elizabeth Olsen, with her piercing stare and wordless screams, wanders through the title's moldy, musty homestead alongside a hand-held camera that rarely lets her out of its sight. She holds a small lamp that serves, for a large portion of the film's 85 minutes, as the only source of light -- until she loses it.
Olsen, the lamp and the camera are engaged in an impeccably choreographed and almost uncut ballet. The fact that it's been done before — the film is a remake of the 2010 Uruguayan hit La Casa Muda — doesn't diminish the accomplishments of Olsen or her directors, the husband-and-wife team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau. Gustavo Hernandez, the original's writer-director, shares a screenplay credit with Lau and sold this property first, but this is one house worth touring again.
Thankfully, Silent House is smart about its scares as well as its delivery method. Because there are precious few breaks in the action, the filmmakers can't cheat the cramped spatial geography of the mirror-heavy setting with quick cuts, as they might in a standard slasher flick. By setting such rigid parameters, by establishing that we will witness only what can be physically orchestrated in real time, Kentis and Lau keep us on our toes.
Those parameters extend to the story, which is kept to the bare essentials: Sarah (Olsen) is cleaning out the cabin her family used to frequent when she was young, so her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) can sell it. Soon it's nighttime, and things start going bump.
Kentis and Lau have experience economizing their resources, having previously made 2003's microbudgeted shark flick, Open Water. Here the pair use every part of the bungalow buffalo. There's a cyclical effect at play in the script's early false alarms; each new pass through a room thought to be safe hints at something new, something we don't want to see.
Inside this canyon of hesitation and uncertainty are silences big enough to fill with a squirm or a sharp intake of breath. Silent House is surprisingly unhurried, allowing ample time for audiences to ponder the unseen menace terrorizing the premises, to wonder if it is somehow tied to Sarah's personal demons.
Elizabeth Olsen has become particularly good at expressing this sort of deep trauma. There's a character type developing, between this role and her breakthrough last year as a cult escapee in Martha Marcy May Marlene: the young woman with the thin smile, who swallows something dark with every breath.
The haunted-house market is booming now, thanks to last month's dual releases (The Woman In Black and The Innkeepers) and the continuing success of the Paranormal Activity franchise. It's a smart trend — and really the best outcome horror aficionados could have hoped for after the Saw-led "torture porn" craze of the mid-2000s threatened to permanently damage the genre. Blood only splatters skin-deep, whereas an evil presence not quite seen — and not quite understood, even once it's perceived — can compromise the structural integrity of the soul.
The slow-burning dread of Silent House is inescapable, even to those who attempt to rise above fear by pondering the movie's "gotcha" alchemy. "Of course," they will muse reassuringly, peeking through fingers as the jolt subsides. "Another actor must have been hiding in the shadows. How clever. Good thing I saw that coming, or I might have gotten scared." (Recommended) Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.