'Silent House' takes on the single-take in horror movies with mixed results
I like the idea of single-take moviemaking in horror.
Leash the camera to a compelling actor and watch the scares spill over the protagonist in real time. Properly done, it could present the relentless escalation of tension and terror. The stakes in the story would have to be higher and the action thicker as the events would only have the normal running time of a feature movie to unwind.
There's the potential for tighter storytelling, innovative camera tricks and a new subgenre for fright films as the latest craze of "found" footage has run its course.
The single take worked brilliantly for Alfred Hitchcock in the under-appreciated 1948 suspense thriller "Rope." Though the film contains several cuts (due to the contemporary limitations to the size of film canisters), it presents in real-time a dinner party in which the killers are serving hors d'oeuvres off the chest they have hidden the body in.
Every moment plays with the threat of imminent discovery and the tension ratchets up as relentlessly as the stare of the camera lens.
It seems like the perfect fit for horror.
The directing duo Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who last worked together as director and producer on 2003's oceanic thriller "Open Water," would seem to agree. They clipped the article off the front of the 2010 Uruguayan horror movie "The Silent House" and remade it as "Silent House," a new American horror movie that stars Elizabeth Olsen as the terrified girl who finds herself trapped inside of a dark and spooky house.
Olsen, fresh off a breakout debut in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," carries the movie on her shoulders with nearly continuous screen-time and a nuanced display of terror. Olsen squeaks with barely held in, open-mouth screams and shakes with hysterical laughter after a fright that sends her scampering across the house. Much of the movie is lit by handheld lanterns, gas lamps and flashlights and so a great deal of the fear conveyed onto the audience comes by way of Olsen's performance.
The single-take conceit requires a large degree of aptitude and planning that draws praise from cinephiles just for the attempt. It's what drew me out to see "Silent House," though my enthusiasm was dampened when I learned it was a remake of a film that had taken the experimental step beforehand of trying to scare the pants off you in a single take.
In the spirit of some of Hollywood's more famous long takes, "Silent House" starts with a high crane shot of Olsen sitting on the rocks by the lake then gets lowered to the ground to follow her with a steadicam as she enters and is subsequently trapped in the family cottage plagued by renovations, mold, squatters and memories. The movie is shaky and the single take is only simulated. The film's several breaks are imperfectly concealed but the cinematographer came up with some clever ways to keep the visuals interesting and hide the edits.
The atmosphere is creepy. The house is a battered and cluttered mess and with the electricity out everything that you can see is dimly lit by handheld light sources and the space offers any numbers of places for scares to hide.
The movie keeps the frights coming pretty consistently until near the end when the final scenes spoils the mood with a twist that was either too obvious or too far out of left-field (I couldn't decide), but I found myself wishing that there was some element of time working against the protagonist to keep the single-take technique relevant and not just a laudable technical achievement and marketing tool.
Whatever's chasing Olsen fails to bring much of the menacing element, being a villain from the school of horror monster that thinks running is a faux pas and never pauses to check under the table.
As a movie, "Silent House" ends up an average horror movie that just happens to star a great up-and-coming actress and be presented in one, long take. The movie's appeal never stretches farther than either on of these two strengths. If neither interests you, this is one "Silent House" you won't be bother not hearing or seeing.
"Silent House " is now playing at Rave Motion Pictures on Carpenter Road and the Goodrich Quality 16 on Jackson Road.
Ryan Levin is a film and television blogger and a graduate of the University of Michigan's Screen Arts and Cultures program. Find his previous review of "CrazyStupidPolitics" here on AnnArbor.com.