Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thursday Review: Silent House (2012)

    Sadly, neither a sequel to Silent Night, Deadly Night or House.

    Gimmicks are a funny thing. They can make your movie stand out from the pack; define itself instantly because the narrative goes in reverse or it’s presented as “found footage” or whatever. But it can also be a crutch - once you commit to said gimmick, you can’t go back; the film has to play by the rules it sets for itself. So Silent House has the gimmick of being filmed in one take (or having the appearance it was filmed in one take - there are more than a few cuts throughout) - the hour and twenty or so minutes happen in real-time. This could result in a tedious experience, but filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau keep the action moving from beginning to end; avoiding many of the pratfalls having the action happen in a single time-frame and also many clichés of horror films in general. But it still can’t avoid the bulk of what bogs down most horror/thriller films these days; namely, it must have a “twist” at the end that makes you rethink what you’ve just seen.

    Elizabeth Olsen plays Sarah, a young woman who’s working with her dad and uncle to restore their old family home out in the countryside. Things, of course, soon turn strange and horrifying, when it appears there’s an intruder lurking in the house, looking to harm them all. Kentis and Lau use this set up to drape a fairly tense horror movie over, and use the one-take method to good effect throughout. It’s a stunning work on a technical level - even though the hour and twenty minutes wasn’t shot in a single, unbroken block, the camera stays on Sarah for the entire film, as she moves through the floors of the house, goes outside, gets in a car, goes back in the house, etc. Just thinking about how many hours of prep and rehearsals the cast and crew must have gone through for the staging and lighting and everything else gives me a headache, so the filmmakers receive all the props in the world for undertaking in the endeavor. Even better, they use the gimmick to illicit some of the film’s best scares - there’s none of the obvious cuts that most horror movies rely on to get their jumps and jolts. The fact that the camera stays on Sarah for the whole film is also utilized extremely well - Kentis and Lau take a page from the Sergio Leone film book and keep things that would normally be seen in the real world hidden since they’re not in the frame, and by staying on Elizabeth Olsen’s face while the “intruder” traipses around the house looking for her makes for some incredibly tense scenes.

    The acting is also topnotch, but that’s mostly due to Olsen. There are other characters who drift in and out of the movie, but it’s Olsen the camera stays with the entire time, and the capable actress shoulders the whole film wonderfully. She spends most of the time either screaming or hyperventilating, so the fact that she still creates a compelling performance and character is commendable. There’s also quite a bit of emotional baggage that comes with the film’s big twist, and Olsen plays all of that complexity well in a short amount of time.

    Which brings us to the “twist”… To best illuminate what’s wrong with the final twenty minutes or so, we’ll have to take a look at an earlier, better film: Ridley Scott’s Alien - a monumental film that has enough going on in it that it could be discussed and analyzed for days, and yet, in the end it’s really a story about a monster picking off the crew of a ship one by one. By taking this simple story and adding in the layers from there, Scott and his crew made a masterful horror film that could work as either a typical B-monster movie or give insight into cultural fears of the growing feminist movement at the time. In other words, it didn’t rely on twists or reveals to make it’s statement; it was a simple story, well told. Silent House (and by extension, most modern horror films) too wants to be more than just a “Boo!” movie, and ventures into some uncomfortable subject matter with the final twist, but the way the film is structured and shot, it just can’t deal with those sort of heavy thematics in any real, meaningful way. The way the film handles this reveal is undeniably impressive - the film is even able to weave in flashbacks without leaving the single, unbroken style of the film - and the gimmick of one long take even works within the narrative; helping to represent the fractured state of Sarah’s mind, and even help explaining some lapses in logic the characters show throughout. Still, the ending hits with all the impact of a wet blanket; a muddled and unexciting conclusion to a film that had been quite promising until that point. The filmmakers could have probably mined the depth they were looking for to much better effect had it just been the simple story of an intruder trying to harm the main character, and not bothered with the big secret running throughout the whole film.

    As much as I didn’t care for the ending, the more I write about it, the more I find how much I enjoyed it. Annoying modern horror tendencies aside, Silent House is still an impressive feat of filmmaking.

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