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Silent House

I’ve already said my piece about “found footage” horror films. I’ve already talked at great length about how countless movies in the subgenre have been made over the past decade, in large part because they’re low-budget, quick to make, and they all follow the exact same goddamn cookie-cutter formula. But on the other hand, I completely understand why the style appeals to audiences. Showing the movie through the eyes of a main character can make for a very immersive experience, after all. It’s a neat trick, just one that got really old really fast.

After so much oversaturation, the time has finally come to take things to the next level. Enter Silent House (not to be confused with Safe House, the Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds actioner that’s still playing in some theaters), a movie that’s presented as a single continuous scene. The whole film was shot in one take, to deliver an experience uninterrupted by cuts. It’s a deceptively difficult task, one that’s only been accomplished a handful of times before.

And to sweeten the pot, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau recruited Elizabeth Olsen to be the star and anchor of their project. Though Olsen may not have reached mainstream recognition just yet, she broke out in a big way last year with the arthouse hit Martha Marcy May Marlene. Every critic who saw the movie — myself included, I’m not ashamed to admit — fell in love with Olsen after her staggering debut performance in that film. So naturally, her casting alone was enough to sell me a ticket.

These are the only two things I knew about the movie going in. I knew absolutely nothing about the premise or the threat of Silent House, nor did I know anything about any of the talent involved, save only for Olsen. The ads for this movie said it starred Elizabeth Olsen and that it was shot entirely in one take, nothing more. If you’re already seeing a few red flags, then congratulations, you’re smarter than I am.

The premise is simple enough. Olsen plays Sarah, a young woman who’s working with her dad and uncle to fix up a house before they sell it. The only problem is that the house doesn’t need renovation so much as it needs a wrecking ball. Local kids have been breaking in constantly, so the windows are all boarded up. The power system is also broken, which means there’s absolutely no light in the house at all. Also, the doors are all padlocked to keep the vandals out. Yet in spite of all these B&E problems, the house appears to be extremely isolated, with only one road cutting through field as far as the eye can see. Then there’s the infestation of rats, which cause random noises at times. Also, the landlines are down and there’s no cell service.

So crazy shit starts happening. Raise your hand if you’re surprised. That’s what I thought.

First of all, this movie claims to be “Inspired by true events.” Horseshit. This movie is a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film, which was in turn based on supposedly true events from the 1940s. I say “supposedly” because (to my knowledge) these events were never authenticated. This means that the movie depicts a laughably contrived setting and a totally absurd narrative, while the filmmakers keep treating it as an immersive and realistic story that’s honestly happened before and could easily happen again. This self-contradiction and blatant dishonesty ruin any attempts at atmosphere the film might have had.

What damages the atmosphere even further is the score. That’s right, this movie has a score. Even the worst filmmakers to play in the “found-footage” sandbox knew that music completely ruins the all-important “you are here” feel if it’s specially composed for the film, recorded by an orchestra in a studio, and played over the film by sound technicians. And yes, I know that this isn’t a “found-footage” movie, but the concept still applies. This is a movie that was made and sold on the concept of total immersion, which is destroyed by the low strings and ambient noises that play when we’re supposed to be scared. Using music in this way usually makes a good horror film great. But since this isn’t supposed to be a usual horror film, it just makes a bad movie pretentious and inept.

Next, I should address the matter of jump scares. I’ve been confused about jump scares for the longest time, since they’re a much-maligned cornerstone of the horror genre. How could a storytelling tool be so reviled and yet so crucial? I think I’ve finally figured it out.

My hypothesis is that a good jump scare is one that carries a threat. A lunatic with a machete running towards you is scary enough, but a lunatic with a machete who jumps in front of you out of nowhere is fucking terrifying. Even a lowly spider can be absolutely frightening if it has the element of surprise. For a recent example, take The Woman in Black. That movie is loaded to the brim with jump scares, but almost all of them are actually caused by ghosts. As a result, the supernatural goings-on are made that much more scary and mysterious.

A bad jump scare, on the other hand, is basically a false alarm. When it turns out to be just a cat. When it’s only a prank. When there’s nothing around the corner or behind the door. Sometimes a false alarm can be used to raise tension, but nine times out of ten, it’s just a tip-off that a serious threat is only seconds away. Even worse is when a movie relies too much on false jump scares, since it doesn’t have any real threats to offer. This movie is a prime example, since the bad jump scares outnumber the good ones by three to one at least.

This brings me to the threat itself. When the time finally came to reveal what had been going on, the film had already shit the bed. The narrative flew completely off the rails in the third act, diving into deep waters of insanity that this (totally serious, entirely realistic) movie was not equipped to handle. And why? Because it was quick. It was lazy and convenient. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that the film could have ended with Sarah waking up, realizing it was all a nightmare, and that still would have been more coherent and less cliche than the actual ending.

So the atmosphere sucks, the scares suck, and the villain sucks. That just leaves the victims.

There are only four characters in this movie. There’s Sarah, her dad, her uncle, and a young woman who appears out of nowhere claiming to be an old childhood friend. Excluding our heroine, that leaves only three characters to kill off or to be the killer. And we learn nothing about them. We barely get to spend any time with them, since the camera only follows Sarah everywhere and Sarah spends pretty much the entire film in paranoid isolation. We never get to emotionally connect with any of the other characters, which deprives the film of any punch when they die and/or turn evil.

Still, I’ll give the film this much: Elizabeth Olsen is the anchor of this movie, and it would be a gross understatement to say that she carries it like a champ. Through nearly every frame of the movie, she delivers an amazing performance of deadly fear and paranoia, even when there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid or paranoid about. This level of intensity and adrenaline would be impressive enough in any other movie, but she somehow managed to maintain it for a single 88-minute scene without a single break. I have absolutely no idea how she did it. Alas, Olsen made Sarah constantly terrified in a movie that wasn’t remotely scary, which only made Sarah appear unreasonably hysterical. Her performance belonged in a much better movie, is what I’m saying.

Additionally, even if the “filmed in one take” thing turned out to be a flimsy gimmick, I’ll admit that it was masterfully executed. The camerawork in this movie was very clever and creative from start to finish. The opening shot alone was a deft and smooth transition from an overhead view to a ground view that kept on going through the rest of the film, prompting one of those rare times when I asked aloud, “How did they do that?” The cinematographer also made ingenious use of reflective surfaces and even door jambs to get the necessary coverage. But then someone has to go shake the camera turn the whole damned thing into an incomprehensible mess.

Silent House is not scary. It’s a horror movie that lacks any horror at all. And what a damn shame, too. Elizabeth Olsen gives a phenomenal performance, and the camerawork beautifully delivers on the “shot in one take” gimmick, but both are totally wasted on an incoherent script that has no idea how cinematic horror works. Or hell, maybe this movie would have worked if it could commit to one side of the “realistic” vs. “fiction” spectrum.

To sum up, this movie is a failed experiment. Don’t be fooled by the gimmick, this is one to avoid.

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