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Silent House: A horror film that doesn't horrify

Elizabeth Olsen in a scene from "Silent House"

2.5 out of 4 stars


Silent House is a bundle of horror-flick tropes yoked together like a package deal. As always in this genre, the aim is to keep the audience off balance, seducing us into seeing things one way only to undermine that perception, then finishing with a surprise kicker. It's the movies' answer to the magician's art of misdirection.

The problem is that everyone is hip to the tricks now, and fooling us ain't easy. So the question here isn't whether the deception is figured out, but when – how early in the proceedings. Since the picture is fairly well made, and certainly well acted, the game is worth playing if just as a friendly competition among filmgoing friends. Who will be the fastest to guess the ending?

You may recall that the co-directors, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, served up some very credible scares in Open Water, where a fractious married couple gets left behind on a scuba-diving outing and, adrift in the ocean, become dinner for a school of sharks. That film works because the frightening part isn't just the maneaters but a much more universal phobia – our fear that one of life's tiny mistakes, just a small error in judgment, can yield disastrous consequences.

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This time out, they've aimed for a bigger thematic target and deployed a bigger cinematic gimmick: Like Hitchcock's Rope, the entire movie unfolds in a single shot. Or at least it purports to. When not guessing the finish, you might have some further fun spotting where the directors have fudged and cheated that sole take.

As for the plot, it's borrowed from a Uruguayan film and begins in the classic terrain of an apparently haunted house. This one sits by a lake, where Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) gathers with her dad John and uncle Peter. In her 20s now, she lived there as a child, and they've assembled to fix the place up for resale. Early on, their discovery of "mould in the basement" doesn't augur well – read that literally if you want, metaphorically if you dare.

Relations among the threesome are amiable enough, although uncle Peter does seem a tad more flirtatious than avuncular, but maybe that's just his extroverted nature. Anyway, when he heads off on an errand, it's left to father and daughter to investigate the first thing that goes bump in the night. I should stop there, since divulging anything else will spoil the game, which revolves around which subgenre will eventually triumph. Is this a realistic fright-fest, or a supernatural thriller, or is it psychological horror in the mode of, say, Polanski's Repulsion?

En route to the solution, Kentis and Lau set themselves the challenge, with their single-shot technique, of generating suspense without the usual reliance on jump cuts and quick edits. They manage well enough initially, bog down in the middle, and then really strain toward the climax. Twin Hitchcocks they aren't.

Working with scant dialogue and on camera almost continually, Olsen faces different constraints, and handles them much better. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, she proved she could act. Here, she proves something much harder – delivering a performance that outshines the material. Olsen is compelling even when the film isn't.

And when isn't it? Easy: from the moment you divine what's truly going on. Unfortunately, I'm really afraid the moment will come way too soon for you; more unfortunately still, that's the only fear that reverberates in this Silent House.

Silent House

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  • Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau
  • Written by Laura Lau
  • Starring Elizabeth Olsen
  • Classification: 14A
  • 2.5 stars

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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