Silent House has been sold as much on a feat of technical showmanship as on its plot, which is probably for the best. There have been horror thrillers about people trapped in a house with a killer before, of course, and there have been films that have attempted to spool out feature-length narratives in a single, long camera shot (e.g. Hitchcock’s Rope or Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark). Heck, there’s even been a single-shot film about a woman trapped in a house with a killer before, in 2010’s Uruguayan film The Silent House, upon which this American remake is based. Silent House, as it is, winds up cheating a bit, both on its story and on its technical conceit, but it’s still a largely enjoyable affair if you’re willing to look past some of the flaws that would appear to be innate to the idea of shooting a film in real-time.
At times, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (who previously worked together on the eerie Open Water) seem to push the single-shot concept a bit harder than the technology can handle, as in the film’s opening shot: we look down on Sarah (Elizabeth Olson) from almost directly above, as she sits on a rock overlooking the water near her family’s summer home. She gets up to move back towards the house, and the camera slowly cranes down, until we’re following directly behind her in a steadicam shot. One can only imagine the bizarre contraptions that were required to pull the shot off; it seems likely that someone wearing an actual steadicam was suspended from a crane and slowly lowered to the ground, but there’s a definite shakiness to it nonetheless, which begins pulling us out of the film and thinking about the processes of its creation almost before it begins.
Sarah’s joined by her father John and uncle Peter in the house, which the trio are attempting to renovate for an eventual sale. In the off-season, vandals and squatters apparently used the place for their own purposes, causing the family to board up the windows and lock all of the exits with padlocks; the front door conveniently doesn’t have a deadbolt, meaning that it requires a key to unlock anytime someone wishes to exit, a key which is kept on a hook directly next to it. You can, of course, see where this is going: if anyone should manage to infiltrate the house and steal the key, the rest of the inhabitants would be trapped inside, at least if they’re not strong enough to bust through the boarded-up windows, as Sarah isn’t.
These early portions of the film are host to an oddly malevolent sexual energy within the group, and between Sarah and her childhood friend, Sophia, who happens to swing by for a chat before the scary noises start kicking into high gear. Olson’s costumed in a braless, low-cut shirt that leaves little to the imagination, and there are a fair amount of creepy lines and stares passed between the men and the girl, and even between the girls themselves. Thus, when Sarah does start hearing strange knocking sounds and shuffling footsteps throughout the house, and appears to be all alone, we already have a trio of suspects to work with, as well as the general idea of some external stranger/ghost/alien that may be behind whatever’s going on.
Again, the gimmick of the film is that real-time, single-cut shot. Your ability to let yourself meld into the film will likely accord to your desire to know more about how it was made; film fans will find it fairly easy to fade away from the events on-screen and wonder about the mechanics of moving off-screen characters around and the difficulties caused by continuity and how some of the more complicated camera movements were pulled off. Although it’s presented as a real-time film, there are something like a dozen cuts along the way (as there were in Rope, although those cuts were needed due to the fact that cameras could only hold ten minutes of film), and it can be challenging to try and place them.
That kind of technical curiosity will probably help you in the slower portions of Silent House, and, as a film that claims to transpire in real time, there are definitely some of those. Olson’s on-screen for practically the entire film, and one can only imagine how stressful it must’ve been to appear to be on the verge of a panic attack for dozens of minutes at a stretch; her excellent performance is one of the main reasons that the film has any credence at all. Still, we are often treated to 30 seconds or a minute of simply sitting and watching her be terrified, or hide under a bed, or running, or crying, presumably while people off-camera are setting up whatever needs to happen next. Individually these moments can be powerful and terrifying, but taken en masse they wind up being exhausting, although that’s no fault of Olson’s.
Eventually the film does feel the need to explain the goings-on, even though the conclusion’s revelations are telegraphed by some loopy events that begin to transpire around the movie’s hour mark. Going into too much detail here would be a disservice, obviously, but suffice to say that the film’s plot seems to be a bit of an afterthought to its technical accomplishments. And those accomplishments are genuinely pretty amazing at times; beyond the simple fact of its one-shot conception, Silent House does manage to strike a note of sustained dread, partially thanks to the eternal creepiness that being in an empty house filled with strange noises always evokes, and partially due to the low-key, subtle score that never intrudes on the action.
Silent House feels like it might be best appreciated on the small screen after a hopefully feature-laden Blu-Ray comes along; the film is fine, for what it is, but it’s the technical and the behind-the-scenes construction of it that is what will likely wind up being its most fascinating aspect, and watching it without being able to answer many of the questions that it raises about how it was put together is mildly frustrating. In an era of CGI, it’s still a joy to see movies that make you genuinely curious about how the filmmakers pulled something off. Silent House might not be able to match the hallway fight scene from Inception for sheer ingenuity, but fans of filmmaking will still have a fun time arguing about it.
Trailer: Silent House
This English-language remake of a Uruguayan film is, like its predecessor, shot in one single 88-minute-long take. In other words, up yours, Cuarón.
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