APRIL 14, 2012
At long last, the original The Silent House (Spanish: La Casa Muda) has arrived, roughly two months after putting it at the top of my Netflix queue. Usually they're not too bad with that sort of stuff, and the remake certainly didn't break any box office records, so maybe they only have like two copies. But it's kind of funny; I tend to like watching the original before a remake whenever possible, and felt better about this delay by the fact that most folks told me the remake was an improvement... only to discover I liked this one more. Spoilers for both ahead!!!
Not only that, but I think seeing the remake first allowed me to enjoy this one more, because I know it could be done not as well. The ending is still a sore spot, and in some ways the movie is even more confusing, but most of it simply plays better. In particular, I think this version is far less showy than the other, which almost seemed to be going out of its way to impress you with excessive camera motion and having its heroine go up and down/outside and back pretty much nonstop. This one is much more "still"; there's a nice bit where she is trying to get out right after first becoming aware of danger, and the camera doesn't move an inch. It just points down the hallway while she enters/exits the frame as she tries different windows (off camera). This actually ramps up the tension - we're not constantly watching her, and thus there's more of a mystery as to where the killer may be and/or when he will strike. It's like that much lauded scare in Exorcist III - it's the lack of cutting and motionless camera that makes it work. If they were moving around and editing between shots, that sequence would be just another slasher jump scare. Same idea here - director Gustavo Hernández heightens the tension simply by doing "nothing".
It also remains grounded in reality. At a certain point, Elizabeth Olsen began seeing toilets on the wall and other surreal imagery that was technically impressive but just added to the creative problems. She also had a lengthy conversation with a character who wasn't there in the first 10 minutes, which will just drive anyone nuts a second time around. Here, all we ever see that's proven to be not really there is the little girl, and only sparingly in the actual film. I say "actual film" because this movie must hold some sort of record for longest post-credits sequence in history - nearly another 10 minutes, which fills in a gap or two and really hammers home the heroine's fractured mental state. And it does so in a way that made me feel sad for her - something I never felt for Olsen's version. That said, I like Florencia Colucci here just as much as Olsen; it's a quieter, more internal interpretation, and now I actually agree with Olsen when she says that their version is completely different - it might have the same plot and the same unique approach, but their takes on the role are very different. Even ignoring the other differences, this switch alone is enough to give each film its own identity.
We're also given fewer scares, which is more of a double edged sword. On one hand, it's nice that not as much of the movie is total bullshit; she actually spends a chunk of the middle just looking at photos and objects on shelves (real) instead of being chased in the cellar by some hulking brute (fake). But on the other hand, this does make the movie feel a bit slow (especially if you know its twist), because... well, she's looking at photos and objects on shelves. There are still a few scares, and of course the tension is unbearable at times, but overall it feels more like a straight thriller than the remake, which fell squarely in slasher/survival horror territory.
I just wish it wasn't so obtuse. Honestly, if I hadn't seen the US version I might be completely baffled by this movie's backstory. It's clear that she's the killer, but the motives and even how the characters related to one another were murky, to put it gently. It seems similar enough to the remake's story, but the child is a much stronger presence (whereas that one focused on the other victims), and it's never clear if she was ever even born. It doesn't help that Hernández REALLY wants us to believe that this is based on a true story, ending the film with some text about the bodies being found six days later and how Laura was never found, which just adds another layer to the puzzle that is not necessary. I swear, some of these guys make their movies in a manner that guarantees they'll have a spirited Q&A session after festival screenings. Just tell your damn story!
The technical aspects are quite solid, however. This was actually shot with an SLR camera (aka something most people would just take pictures with) and it looks phenomenal despite the constant low lighting situations, which usually translates to ugly images that have guys like me bitching about not using 35mm or Super 16 film. But no, credit where credit is due - if all digital films looked this good I wouldn't complain about it anymore. Plus, as with the other version, there is no way to make this movie with traditional film cameras that I can tell, so it's creatively justified to boot.
On that subject (as if I've stopped talking about the remake once - sorry, it's a very thin premise and a very similar film, so it's hard not to), I'd like to point out something that bugged me about critiques of the remake. Some folks were claiming that the movie was not very creative or impressive because it was a fairly close copy of an existing film. And yes, the two are similar, and if I were to give a 5 line synopsis of the entire movie I could practically use one writeup for both versions. However, the scene by scene breakdown is actually quite different; this one has almost no dialogue, it gets scary quicker, there's no "old friend" character, and the house is completely different, so the remake folks were most certainly not copying this one shot for shot (er, well, you know what I mean). Also, the "gimmick" of the film is its all one take approach, which is a technical and logistic nightmare, and both teams had to solve it from scratch. The remake did not have the same house (they don't even have the same number of floors), so even if those other things were recycled, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau would still have had to figure out how to do it! In fact you could make this movie 50 times in 50 houses and it would be impressive every single time, because so much has to be figured out in order to pull it off, and they can't just say "What did the other guy do?" And hell, this one only cost six thousand bucks - if you think it's easy, go ahead and try to do it yourself.
So this one's better, but I walk away with a stronger feeling about the remake in a weird way. It's worth watching them back to back just to see how an actress' approach and a few narrative changes are enough to make the films different even with such a limited concept. Even if I think the remake's changes were mostly for the worse, it's still impressive that they took what should be an impossible movie to do once and did it again without giving a viewer too much deja vu. Kudos!
What say you?