March 9, 2012 (USA)
Laura Lau (screenplay) based on the film by Gustavo Hernández
Chris Kentis and Laura Lau
Elizabeth Olsen as Sarah
Adam Trese as John
Eric Sheffer Stevens as Peter
Julia Taylor Ross as Sophia
By James “Crypticpsych” Lasome
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), her father John (Adam Trese), and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are working to clean out the family’s old house by the lake so it can be sold to a new owner. The job isn’t going too easily as Sarah seems reluctant to move on from the house. While John and Peter try to figure out how extensive a newly-discovered mold problem is, Sarah is left alone by the light of battery-powered lanterns and flashlights to put away some furniture. Suddenly, she begins to hear strange noises around her that her father puts off as the house just being an old house. After he’s set her to work packing up her old room, though, the noises get louder and more violent. Suddenly, Sarah discovers not only does the rest of her family seem to be gone, she’s also been trapped and locked inside somehow. Feeling ever more threatened in the dark and now seeing things, she’s forced to grapple with the possibility that she may not be the only person wandering the halls.
Silent House is a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film (La Casa Muda) and the long-awaited follow-up film from the duo behind 2003’s trapped-at-sea film Open Water. The film seems exactly the type of movie that would play to their greatest strengths as, even though Open Water is set in the vast ocean, it’s really only focused on a few characters in one tiny little patch of the water and the threats that surround them. Similarly, this film has a total cast of 6 characters and gets the same claustrophobic feeling from being almost entirely enclosed within the house’s four walls and its many winding halls and rooms. This setting is incredibly effective as, with limited light and focused so heavily and closely on one character wandering the narrow halls, it’s easy to get just as confused, lost, disturbed, and paranoid as Sarah seems to. That, coupled with Elizabeth Olsen’s great performance, helps to make the movie that much more engaging. However, that’s only part of what makes the final product so intense and chilling as much of the attention this film has gotten comes from the much-publicized gimmick it shares with the original film: the entire 85-minute film happens in real-time and seems to be shot without any obvious cuts between scenes.
To be clear, though, this isn’t entirely true. What Silent House is instead is a film that is indeed a real-time 85-minute experience… but that is actually made up of far fewer scenes than an average movie cut together expertly to create the impression of a single, seamless, uncut movie. To accomplish that, the editing has to be near-perfect to avoid breaking the illusion. Thankfully, the filmmakers succeed in their efforts as I was only able to pick out one moment when I thought a cut might have happened and even then, through sound design, the movie continues as if it hadn’t. In addition, there are some pretty complex camera gymnastics that go on in some of the scenes as the camera moves to keep up with the actors or to be in exactly the right place to see a certain thing. There are a few out-of-place moments where the cinematography goes a little far into “shakycam/found footage” territory, but, for the most part, the camerawork and uncut feel only add to the tension the setting provides.
However, Silent House also is a perfect example of why most movies aren’t shot in this style. Movies have cuts so that audiences can get a break from looking at the same thing over and over again. It allows the tension to ease for a moment and helps keep the movie fresh. When the cuts are removed or camouflaged as well as they are here, there’s no escape for the audience, just like there’s no escape for the character. So while it’s easy to get engaged in the movie, it’s equally easy to get bored and feel every single minute of its runtime.
The ending of Silent House will also cause problems for people. While I enjoyed it, I have to admit that it was telegraphed throughout the movie through various lines and some characters’ actions. It also is extraordinarily similar to, though less mean-spirited than, the ending of another movie that caused controversy with its own ending, so there’s precedent for people to be unhappy with this.
Silent House is a genuinely chilling and engaging movie that is held back by some serious flaws. The “uncut” gimmick DOES work in tandem with Olsen’s performance, the creepy setting, and the complex camerawork. However, it also causes the movie to feel overlong and monotonous as it goes on and leads to a sure-to-be controversial ending. While the positives do outweigh the negatives overall, there’s still enough problems that the final product feels like it could have been so much more than it is.