2.5 stars out of 4
One house. One shot. A lot of screams. That is your ideal tagline for Silent House, another horror film that feigns to be based on a true story. Aren’t they always? For my money, I’m sure Silent House is just as nonfictional as The Amityville Horror or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Wow, those were real works of authenticity…ho-hum. Yes, I’ve heard it all and each time I grow less terrified. My advice: acknowledge its fiction, and just scare us. Trust me: the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief.
The myth is born from Uruguay, where in 1942 two people were found in a farmhouse inexplicably tortured. It inspired a 2010 Uruguayan film by Gustavo Hernández called The Silent House. Leave it to American indie cinema to come along, remake the film, and truncate the title. Since I have seen the original, this Silent House was a familiar stroll through the 88-minute unbroken shot, which is undoubtedly the most original feature of this story.
Sure, Silent House was not actually filmed in one extended shot. With the technology now, the filmic illusion is no longer a human ploy but a post-production appendage. I remember when Hitchcock made Rope in 1948 and tried to create the semblance of real time through continuous takes, which lasted 20 minutes until the reel finished. To cut, he would move the camera into a dark object as a substitute for a fade out.
Directed by Open Water filmmakers Chris Kentis and Lara Lau, Silent House takes Hitchcock’s experiment and attempts a psychological study of protagonist Sarah (Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Elizabeth Olsen), who has an ultra-terrifying stay with her father John (Adam Trese) and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) at their country lakeside house. Things soon go bump in the night and then the rest of the film is a mad, uncut crawl through suspenseful episodes.
The film is saved by the mysterious, haunted, and always inviting presence of Olsen. She’s a face that we immediately want to break out the magnifying glass and scrutinize. While her character endures most of the film as the helpless, often whimpering damsel-in-distress, the directors serve up a twist that, even though a step up from the original film, still feels hugely contrived. Why? Because I don’t think a single shot can sustain the psychological depth needed for the narrative. Montage is the classic method for carving into the characters’ consciences, but the tracking shot tends to hone in on opposing details.
Is this single-take shenanigan falling into gimmick? Maybe. While Silent House may earn a stylistic distinction from typical horror films it doesn’t feel particularly necessary. It’s really a coverup from the derivative content, but it works. However, I start to wonder if Russian Ark, the earliest of this trend, was a film with a plot so mundane the tracking shot served the purpose of turning banality into poetry. The idea of roaming around a Russian museum was transcended by a unique form of immersion.
Having said that, I jumped during Silent House. Of course, I laughed afterwards. Paranormal Activity is responsible for that reflex. Kentis and Lau, to their credit, play around with the 2010 film’s material. Scenes are similar, but unfold in different fashions. The classic scene with the pinhole camera uses its flash to generate unhinging suspense. You’ll know what I mean. Also, the film makes notable use of sound instead of flooding us with visual jump scares.
Nevertheless, I bet if Silent House cut itself up and developed a more traditional, character-based style it would have worked more. Tracking shots are choice devices. You use them sparingly, when the moments right. There are times in Silent House where you will find the directors missed an opportunity to perform an awesome cut. But the camera moves persistently, trying to flee the action only to inevitably return. It sometimes builds, and – of course – occasionally overstays its welcome.