By C. Michael Forsyth
“The Silent House” is the most harrowing horror movie I’ve seen in years, suspenseful and technically brilliant with an extraordinary lead performance and a disturbing finale.
The story unfolds in real-time — 88 minutes — and the film appears to be a single uninterrupted shot. (Some edits are snuck in, but they’re invisible to the untrained eye).
Unlike “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” the conceits of which allowed for roughshod camerawork, this movie needed a director with technical skill. No one without a great deal of cinematic prowess would even attempt something this bold – since it would only take one screw-up along the way to ruin the long take.
Co-directors Chris Kentis and wife Laura Lau fill the bill. They are best known for “Open Water” (2004) about a couple stranded in shark-infested waters. That was another movie made on a low budget with a tiny cast but with major technical challenges. (Every film student is taught to avoid shooting on water).
It’s a testament to their meticulously thought-out choreography that had the single-shot gimmick in “The Silent House” not been highly publicized, most movie goers wouldn’t consciously notice it. The camera always seems to be in just the right place. Yet the technique produces a powerful effect: unrelieved tension from the first frame to the last.
In the movie, a young woman named Sarah, her father and uncle Peter are fixing up their secluded summer house to sell it. Soon after her uncle stomps out in a huff, Sarah becomes separated from her dad and she finds herself trapped in the house — stalked by someone or something. The danger swiftly escalates, as does Sarah’s terror.
The movie is a remake of the Uruguayan film “La Casa Muda,” which in turn is “inspired by a true story” that took place in the 1940s – in other words, the whole thing is made up.
The filmmakers build tension from the very opening scene and never quit. You don’t feel Sarah is safe for a single minute and you don’t feel you can trust anyone. Is Uncle Peter staring at Sarah’s top a bit too long when he tells her how “grown up” she looks? What about this mysterious former boyfriend who, as her father John learns by checking her Facebook page, wants to come back into her life? Isn’t there something “off” about the young neighbor who drops by claiming to have been Sarah’s childhood playmate – yet whom Sarah can’t seem to remember? Even dear old dad has a creepy streak. Why is he snooping on her FB page in the first place?
And of course, what about the unseen squatters who may or may not have taken up residence in the boarded-up home?
The movie benefits from a compelling performance by Elizabeth Olsen, the non-anorexic kid sister of the Olsen twins, as Sarah. Projecting fear so intense that she can sometimes scarcely breathe or bite back screams, she invites us to share her terror.
This isn’t the first movie that takes place in real time. In “High Noon” the suspense of the countdown to the gunfight is enhanced by the fact that the passage of time on the ticking clock on screen matches the one in the movie theater. Nor is this the first use of the single-take technique. Alfred Hitchcock pioneered it famously in “Rope” in 1948. But in “Rope, the gimmick didn’t add much to the story telling – you merely appreciated the difficulty and applauded Hitch for pulling off the tour de force. The legendary director himself later dismissed the movie as an “experiment that didn’t work out.”
Here, that unblinking camera delivers a heightened sense of realism and bonds us intimately with Sarah as it follows her every move.
The New York Times ran a story on the making of the film that throws light on the intense preparation involved. For weeks prior to filming, the directors roamed the house plotting and rehearsing the camera moves and action.
“Laura would play the part of Sarah,” Kentis told the paper, “and I’d follow her with the camera and record. We would work out all the choreography and the possibilities before we brought the crew on.”
The planning paid off. But success with the immensely long take is only one aspect of the brilliant cinematography on display in the film. The small Canon 5D chosen for filming allows for creative manipulation of focus – sometimes characters or things become unnervingly blurry.
“It’s that camera’s shallow depth of field and the lenses we used that helped us tell the story,” Mr. Kentis explained. “You could use it to draw the audience’s attention to something within the frame or you could use it to reflect a character’s state of mind.”
The murky lighting that permeates the house adds to the ominous mood – rooms filled with little more than old mattresses somehow appear nightmarish. Sarah briefly makes it outside and the scene in which she runs for her life is so hyperkinetic, the effect is impressionistic. As simple an image as the shadow of a man standing behind a sheet of plastic is unsettling in the adept hands of the cinematographer Igor Martinovic.
In one highly inventive sequence, the lights go out and the only illumination is the periodic flash of a Polaroid camera Sarah uses as a makeshift flashlight. Needless to say, what she sees in those flashes isn’t very reassuring.
Sound is used just as effectively as image — mysterious footsteps; rattling in walls; the thump of a body hitting a floor. What’s happening off screen, what Sarah can’t see in this house of horror, is more terrifying than what she can see. And let’s not forget the art direction. The mundane yet somehow not-quite-right junk piled up in the rooms of the maze-like old home make it as scary as any amusement park haunted house.
The Academy is stingy about doling out Oscars to horror movies (“Silence of the Lambs” and just 13 others have earned awards) but “The Silent House” deserves consideration in more than one category.
Now, I’m not saying the picture is perfect. About halfway in, you’ll groan when you see what appears to be The Classic Bone-Headed Move. You know, when characters put themselves in danger when they have a clear chance to escape? A few minutes later, you’ll think the KILLER is making The Classic Villain Bone-Headed Move (not finishing off the victim). Relax, there’s an explanation.
The resolution of the movie is one that fans of the genre will not exactly find fresh. Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say you’ve seen it before. In this case, it does fit the story and wraps things up in an emotionally satisfying (though stomach-turning) way. My complaint is not so much that it’s become a cliché as that it always leaves me as a viewer feeling betrayed. And because of the unique manner in which the story is filmed, the sin is even more egregious. Frankly, I’d have been happier if the police just showed up out of nowhere to save the day.
What the heck am I talking about? Well, you’ll have to see the movie – and I recommend that you do.
Copyright C. Michael Forsyth
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