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Sundance 2011: “Silent House” Left Me Creaky Bored

Sundance 2011: "Silent House" Left Me Creaky Bored

I know the headline for this review doesn’t make much sense, but it is fitting since “Silent House” doesn’t make much sense either. Sadly, I can’t tell you why, because that would spoil the ridiculous twist and potentially ruin the rest of this highly tense horror flick for those of you who might actually be interested. The film is by the writer/director team of Laura Lau and Chris Kentis (“Open Water”) and based on Gustavo Hernández’s 2010 Uruguayan film, “La Casa Munda,” which apparently was inspired by a true story. And like the original, the remake is completely shot in a single take, an ambitious yet well-executed gimmick that is the only real reason to give it any credit whatsoever. But the first film deserves the credit more for doing it first (please, Hollywood, don’t let one-take horror films be the new trend).

The words creaky and bored come into play because the story and particularly the reveal are extremely timeworn, and because of this I was extremely bored. I don’t know if the rest of the audience was, though, as enough laughing emanated from the midnight Sundance crowd for me to assume a number of viewers were having a good time — if not quite in the way intended (though I just can’t believe the most humorous lines were not meant to be knowingly funny, cliched on purpose). It takes a very, very long time to get to even those laughs, however, as the one-take concept means there’s no omission of dead time and space. And there are a whole lot of stairs to be walked up and down in the film.

Elizabeth Olsen (sister of the Olsen twins) stars as Sarah, a young woman visiting the boarded up summer home of her childhood, along with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens), as they pack up and fix up the house in order to sell it. The place is totally dark because of the shuttered windows and of course rats or something have chewed the power lines (also, there’s no phone and “our cells don’t work up here,” we’re conveniently told). Eventually Sarah begins hearing loud noises in the house and it seems there may be a homicidal squatter living there who isn’t happy about the owners’ sudden return. Or, is the house haunted? (or, is it ___fill in the blank with overused, lame twist____?)

Lau and Kentis do a commendable job directing the camera, and the players in front of it, for the entire 86 minutes of the (mostly?) single take. We can imagine it took a lot of rehearsing and maybe a few screw ups. But for what good is it? The majority of the target audience for cheap haunted house movies and home-invasion thrillers is unlikely to care about such an achievement. If they’re not told about it beforehand, they might not even notice. Sure, there is some craft to the way the scares are achieved, and some cleverness to the trickery done with subtle and precise Steadicam movement, yet I believe editing is a better tool with which to surprise an audience.

I guess the camera’s constant alignment with Sarah during the film gives us more mystery and suspense regarding what’s not being shown, but this isn’t much different from camcorder faux doc horror, especially the kind shot first-person-POV-style. And with such a slow-going and tedious narrative, this is a movie during which some of you will just keep thinking about the constructs involved. In addition to the use of the single long take, I kept contemplating the lighting situation, how the covering of windows was a nice touch, particularly when you forget there’s actually daylight outside the house. A Polaroid camera is also used quite effectively for a suspenseful sequence, though it doesn’t have a very good payoff.

Humorously enough, in attendance at that first Sundance screening was Harvey Weinstein, aka “Harvey Scissorhands.” And all I could think of is that if he were to pick up “Silent House,” there’s no way for him to snip any bits or pieces, because any cut would disrupt the single-take flow and conceit. Actually, though, there is one part that should be scissored out immediately: the expository end titles that are — sorry for the SPOILER — exactly the same as those in “Paranormal Activity.” I mean exactly.

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Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic)

Follow Spout on Twitter (@Spout) and be a fan on Facebook
Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic)

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