FEBRUARY 23, 2012
If I judged it purely on its technical merits, Silent House would be a shoe-in for the year’s best horror film – even the creative choices that left me a bit cold (more on those in a bit, obviously) in a weird way just made the film’s unusual approach all the more impressive. It’s not the first realtime movie by any means, but it is the first horror film I can think of (besides the original, which I still haven't seen) that unfolds entirely in one seamless take, thus preventing its filmmakers from pretty much every trick in the book (i.e. cutting away to a scary thing, cutting back to their reaction). But unlike Rope (Hitchcock’s similarly one-take thriller) it’s not slowly paced either – heroine Elizabeth Olsen starts getting terrorized after about 15 minutes, and it never stops laying on the trauma from there.
Another difference from Rope is that moves around. Olsen travels in and out of the house, and even in and out of a car, all without noticeable edits (I believe I read there are 13 cuts in the film; I only caught 3 or 4), not to mention all of her travels within the three story house. If one considers the lighting and other technical nightmares doing a film like this would cause, it’s nothing short of miraculous that they managed to pull it off as well as they have. It’s also one of the rare films that justifies the choice for digital photography – I don’t know of a 35mm camera in the world that could be used in this way even without taking the limited reel allowance (10 minutes) under consideration. The low lighting and jerky camera causes some problems that might not have been an issue with superior 35mm film (particularly the dining table scare – I have no idea what scares her because it’s too murky to make out), but for the most part - this is how digital should be used in feature films: to accomplish what would be impossible otherwise.
Back to the film’s fast pacing, I should note that it’s not a “torture” flick – I believe the total damage to Olsen’s body consists of a scraped wrist and a few other minor bumps and bruises, and pretty much every other bit of violence in the film occurs off-screen. No, it’s very much in the vein of older scare films, where the intensity and fear of the unknown make the movie scary, not people tied to chairs and screaming. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but there’s a moment early on where we see a bag full of tools –I figured it was foreshadowing later acts of violence, but I don’t think it ever comes into play, and if it was intentional misdirection, I applaud them. Thus, for the most part, it works like gangbusters as an exercise on how to milk a very simple idea (in this case, a girl trapped in her house with a killer or killers) for the maximum amount of scares and suspense, not unlike Halloween.
Unfortunately, whether it’s because of movies like The Strangers or just plain silliness, the screenwriters can’t be satisfied with that simplicity, and what was (should be?) an enjoyable home invasion movie eventually moves into another sub-genre's territory, at which point the movie kind of lost me. Unfortunately I can’t go into it without spoiling things (I will reveal a similar movie in inviso-text so it doesn't catch your eye), so skip the next two paragraphs if you’d like to keep the film’s twist a total surprise.
Before I start speaking against it, I will say this: the twist doesn’t come as completely out of nowhere as some might think. There are clues both overt (a very spooky encounter with an old friend, a locked box that she is unable to open, etc) and more subtle (her uncle’s way of greeting her in his first appearance) that are sprinkled throughout the film, and thus when it becomes the main focus of the final 20 minutes, you can’t accuse them of pulling it out of their ass when (AGAIN, SPOILER!) we discover that the “killers” are in her head and SHE is the one that killed her father and uncle. However, due to the film’s one-shot approach, there’s no easy way of showing the audience how this “works”. In High Tension, we got to see the surveillance footage and such in order to let it make a little more sense, but there is zero way to show us how she was able to kill her dad when we were watching her the entire time (she wasn’t even on the same floor as her was when he was attacked).
Plus, you know, F U! Didn’t they learn from that movie that audiences don’t like to be told that the bulk of the movie was a cheat? I’m fine with a good twist, but it’s got to be sound and pay off what we’ve actually seen in the movie (again: Sixth Sense does this perfectly). Even something like Usual Suspects works, because it’s not that what he’s telling us didn’t happen – it just had a different context than what we were led to believe. Here, there’s no “let me show you how it worked” scene – the twist comes, she finishes off her enemies, and then it ends. Apparently the film originally had some text explanation at the end when it showed at Sundance (with a different ending, though from what I understand it was along the same lines), I can’t help but wonder if that would have helped – anyone see it? Sadly the reviews I’ve found aren’t as willing to get into spoilers as I am!
My only other concern is a minor one. Elizabeth Olsen is a terrific actress and I bow to her for acting in a movie where she’s not only on-screen but nearly hyper-ventilating the entire time (and doing so in 10-15 minute takes). However, her cries sound more like laughs, which severely deflates the tension on more than one occasion (my audience started laughing along with her). I wish they could have dubbed in some more appropriate shrieks - I believe Blow Out perfectly explained how a scream can make or break a horror film.
It’s a shame that the ending wrecks a lot of the movie’s greatness; the few reviews I’ve looked at suggest no one is a fan of how it ends, and thus it’s going to be hard to earn good word of mouth, especially with the ad campaign promising that it’s based on a true story and such. And those reviews, like mine, come from a place of appreciating the technical merits of the film. Those who don’t give a shit about how hard it is to make a movie in a single shot (director Chris Kentis claims some people have told him that they didn’t even notice) aren’t likely to be as forgiving – they’re just going to remember being pissed off by a goofy, under-explained twist. And die hard horror fans might be angry for another reason: it took 7 years after Open Water for Kentis and co-director/screenwriter Laura Lau to make another movie, and it’s a remake with a lame twist that they didn’t bother to “fix” for their version? What the hell, guys?
What say you?