These days it’s hard to find a really good genre horror film. Like the western, horror has been done so many times that it’s exceedingly difficult to make a fresh looking scary movie. For a little while the only way you could make a new horror film and have it actually be scary was by making a “found footage” film like “Cloverfield” or “Paranormal Activity” but even that form is now overused and stale.
Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s (“Open Water”) “Silent House” (based on a 2009 foreign film by Gustavo Hernandez) does something interesting; on the outside it has an intentionally crude and amateurish look, bringing back a familiar back-to-basics horror movie feel and transcending three different kinds of scary movie plot lines--starting with an “intruder in the house” story, then moving to Haunted House and finally going for a tricky psychological ending.
However, here’s the modern hook: The entire film is one continuous, uninterrupted shot. “Silent House” is 88 minutes, and that means all the events that take place in the movie happen in 88 minutes. Now yes, like the “found footage” method this is a gimmick but there’s nothing wrong with a gimmick if it isn’t overused.
The movie starts with an overhead shot of our heroine Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen, coming off of her wonderful debut performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” carrying the movie fairly well considering she’s playing a pretty standard role) who, along with her dad John (Adam Trese) and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are at their old house in the country fixing it up for resale.
As she begins walking, the camera slowly lowers down and from that point on stays with her for the duration of the film. The single shot technique along with the 3rd person limited structural choice yields two strengths. On the one hand, you’re with Sarah and only her. If she hears a creaking noise, you hear it, if she sees a monster, you see it. It helps conceal the terror and tension. You don’t know what’s coming until Sarah experiences it and that is effective.
On top of that it makes the conventional aspects of the movie more believable. Most of “Silent House” concerns Sarah running around the three story house, hiding under tables, chairs, in closets, behind moving boxes, whilst trying to outrun the mysterious intruder. She trips and falls a few times (which as we know must happen to females in horror movies) and close to the end she’s reduced to a sniveling, sobbing mess (another trait of the horror picture). But the fact that we’re experiencing all this in real time makes everything feel more genuine. Yes, Sarah is balling her eyes out but can you blame her?
Overall the main reason why “Silent House” works so well is that it doesn’t try overly hard to be scary. Earlier this year James Watkins tried to bring back old school horror delight with “The Woman in Black” but ultimately it sold out for cheap, “man jumping out of a closet” thrills that wore off immediately after they happened. The terror in “Silent House” is gradual--with Nathan Larson’s eerie score subtly in the background--and doesn’t tell you when to be scared. Granted it does cause the film to be a little slow in places and I can’t say I was always scared, but I’d take slow scares over cheap ones any day.
The ending is ambiguous and will make you tilt your head and say “huh?” And thinking about it now I’m not sure it entirely works. It does make you think, and I’d be curious to watch the movie again to see if it makes any more sense a second time around.
Everything in “Silent House” doesn’t always cohere, and just like the found footage subgenre, I’m sure other horror movie filmmakers will try to over exploit the “Single Shot” style but in the meantime, “Silent House” is one of the better horror films I’ve seen recently.