We haven’t heard much from writer/director Chris Kentis since he hit the Sundance Film Festival with Open Water back in 2004. The filmmaker’s speculative account of two missing scuba divers earned the respect of critics for its raw improvisational style. And perhaps more importantly, the ballsy Kentis dared to put his actors in the water with hungry, real-life sharks. Turn on the camera. And then toss some chum. It was a move that earned him some heavy-duty street cred with the indie-spunk fringe players, even if the resulting film wasn’t satisfying enough to prove re-watchable.
But a seven year absence seems awfully excessive, especially for a writer/director whose first Sundance Film Festival entry grossed $30 million on a $500,000 budget. Thankfully, the prodigal son returned to Sundance ’11 with Silent House, a very late addition to the festival slate. (According to one of the programmers, the film was just wrapping principal photography as Sundance was making its final selections).
It’s a self-contained haunted house story told in 86 minutes of real time, taking place one evening around sunset, as young Sarah assists her father and uncle as they fix up the old family house prior to its sale. There’s no power, no cell phone reception. Sarah’s dad is bossy and controlling, her uncle is overly friendly and leering, and she treads a careful line when dealing with the two dominant males. It’s a character dynamic that grows more interesting as the film progresses, and the lamp-lit faces add to the ominous mood. They haven’t revisited the house in several years, and old memories linger. There’s tension between the two brothers that Sarah doesn’t understand, the house is full of creaks and footsteps, and mysterious Polaroids turn up in random places. And soon Sarah begins to wonder if they are truly alone in the house.
Silent House is a remake of 2010‘s La Casa Muda, a haunted house movie from Uruguay that was reputedly shot in one single continuous take. Kentis’ film is also a one-shot wonder (any cheats are virtually impossible to spot), starting slow but raising the stakes during its second half. Elizabeth Olsen (Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen‘s way hotter sister) plays the post-high-school Sarah, and considering that she’s on screen during almost every moment of the film’s running time, she carries the movie admirably. Much of the first 30 minutes are spent with Sarah and one of the two men, but when she’s left alone later in the film, the gut-wrenching suspense really takes over. In these moments, the thumping sound design is brilliant, and these isolation scares are Silent House’s bread and butter. (A twilight scene with Sarah alone in the SUV creeped me right out of my skin.)
As is the case with most haunted house movies, the reasons behind the haunting are never as compelling as the haunting itself, but Kentis manages to mine the single-setting premise with some clever, highly memorable scares. He’s attacked an impressively ambitious technical project––a work reminiscent of films like Buried, REC, or Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rope––and managed to pull it off admirably.