Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 at the Movies #11: Silent House

There is a genuine, palpable terror mined in Silent House (2012), a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan horror film, which, in turn, was based on a ‘true story.’ 

This American remake, directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, consists of a handful of ten-minute segments stitched together almost seamlessly, so that it appears as though the film consists of only one, long, continuous shot. 

Thus, as the ads trumpet, Silent House represents horror in “real time,” depicting eighty-eight or so grueling minutes in the life of a frantic, terrified young woman named Sarah.  

There are virtually no lulls in the film, and it is paced expertly and efficiently.  The absence of quick cutting, and indeed, cuts of any type, means that the space “around” Sarah is charted thoroughly, and so fear boasts the opportunity -- like a flower -- to grow, and grow until it reaches full, malevolent blossom.

Some audiences have reportedly felt “ripped off” by Silent House because:

a.) It isn’t actually one continuous shot, but several.


b.) There is no supernatural entity in the film, which is how some folks reportedly “interpreted” the ads and trailers, specifically the presence of a young specter-like girl in a nightgown.

When I screened Silent House I was aware of neither viewer complaint, and simply experienced the film as it was “happening” to me.  I had no pre-conceived notions, in other words, and no expectations.  I must honestly report that I felt while watching, at times, an almost overwhelming sense of fear and claustrophobia.  

By revealing to us a single character trapped in one place, for eighty unrelenting minutes, Silent House distills the horror experience down to an impressively pure crucible.  

In short, Silent House concerns the feelings of being trapped alone in a house with a killer, and trying to find some way -- any way -- to escape.  In many important ways, it plays like a nightmare you can't awake from.  All escape attempts end with a return to entrapment, and the chase by the Bogeyman never ceases, even when reality itself seems to break down.

In specific narrative terms, Silent House revolves around poor Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), who is visiting an old family house in the country with her father and uncle.  The house is to be sold off, and the family members are there to clean it out and pack up their belongings before it goes on the market.

As evening approaches, Sarah is surprised to be visited by an old friend from the neighborhood, one who clearly remembers her, but whom she does not recall at all.  As Sarah points out, she has some gaps in her memory.

Her uncle leaves the house for a while, as the sun goes down, and then Sarah’s father disappears too, leaving the young woman alone in a dark, upstairs room.  She hears strange noises, and then suddenly comes under relentless, non-stop attack by a strange assailant. Sarah hides throughout the house, and finally escapes through the maze-like basement, but the killer is always close-by. 

After she escapes the grounds, Sarah runs into the returning uncle, who brings her right back to the house so they can find her father together. 

Not surprisingly, the killer is still there, and before you know it, Sarah is all alone once more, trying to figure out what is happening to her, and how to stay alive.  In short order, the house itself seems to conspire to keep her a prisoner there…

Silent House tells a very simple, very lean story, and aside from some serious lighting issues at critical junctures, the directors do a fine job of landing us in Sarah’s shoes and generating almost non-stop suspense.  

Olsen’s committed, all-in performance maintains the film’s focus so that when the final revelation occurs, it doesn’t feel like a cheat.  It may not be a total surprise for those of us very experienced with watching horror movies, but nor is it a cheat.

Read no further if you wish to know what’s really going on here.

Still here?

All right, then.

Silent House operates by a very simple, if intriguing premise. The house where Sarah is trapped is, metaphorically-speaking, one of her own making; one of her own mind. 

Returning to this childhood house, she begins to experience unpleasant memories from her childhood, memories that she has kept blocked out and denied for a very long time.  They concern child sexual abuse.

As Sarah navigates the labyrinth of the country house, she is also running through a kind of subjective reality, an experience what can only be described as a psychotic break.  Accordingly, the rooms eventually become twisted manifestations of her fears, changing shape and form in horrifying ways.  One room suddenly explodes with outbreaks of multiplying mold, a literalization of the idea that Sarah somehow feels soiled and ruined by the acts of the abusers.

There are well-placed clues regarding the “truth” about Sarah throughout Silent House, from the odd presence of Sarah’s childhood friend, to the fact that three times during the film, Sarah hides under furniture and is yanked into the open by a stranger’s hand.  This hiding place and pose evokes memories of a “game” she was forced to endure as a little girl. 

And then, of course, there are the photographs that her uncle and father don’t want her to see, which are strewn about…

The only thing that matters is that, in the end, it all tracks.

And the complaints about Silent House? I have a rule about reviewing movies that goes approximately like this:  You can’t review a movie on the basis of what it isn’t.  You have to discuss what it is.  

I’m sorry some viewers felt disappointed that there were no supernatural entities involved here, but I’ve watched the trailer several times, and am not sure why these folks ever believed the film was going to be Paranormal Activity 5 or something of the kind.

And who cares whether the film consists of one shot or ten shots?  If the story is vetted well (and it is), that matters more than whether or not it is crafted in a single continuous take.  Even Hitchcock's Rope wasn't actually a single take, but a few.

In terms of the story it tells, Silent House assembles the pieces relentlessly, until the full, accurate picture of Sarah's suffering forms by movie’s end.  More than that, the (near) continuous nature of the film builds an inescapable, merciless sense of suspense.  Coupled with Olsen’s bravura performance, Silent House really and truly proves terrifying.  I watched the film on streaming (Time Warner Cable) and had some visual problems, because of under-lighting at points.  But I gladly endured such moments because of the feelings of intense fear and entrapment the movie successfully provokes.

Silent House also boasts at least two scenes that I found extremely effective, and even terrifying.  In the first, Sarah realizes there is somebody else in the house, and tries to escape through the basement, a terrain that goes further and further down, almost beyond reality.  She finally arrives at a dead-end -- and a bedroom for squatters -- when her assailant shows up.  In the second extraordinarily suspenseful sequence, Sarah sits alone in her uncle's SUV, and watches in the rear view mirror as the hatch-back door keeps lifting open, apparently of its own volition.  Then, she sees someone climbing into the back seats...

Long story short: Don’t go into Silent House expecting a ghost story, and don’t go just looking for the “seams” in the long takes.  Instead, allow the movie’s immersing techniques and Olsen’s amazing, accomplished performance work their considerable magic, and you’ll find that Silent House is a relatively rare treat: a horror movie that really and truly scares you.

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