The first and most important piece of advice I have before saying anything else is to go see Silent House now, before reading the rest of this review. You won’t absolutely ruin the film by not going in completely cold, but doing so will help maximize the impact. If you continue reading now, do so at your own risk.
Back? Good. Horror movies have been overrun with hand-held cinéma faussité, which mostly seems to excuse bad production on the filmmakers’ part. This film seems like it could fall into that vein, but tellingly it doesn’t pretend that any of this “really happened”, or that it was really recorded. Instead, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau follow the actors around with hand-held cameras in order to capture the action “in real time”, in a series of impossibly long takes.
The story is tight and simple: Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), her father, John (Adam Trese), and her uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are fixing up an old house the family used to live in years ago. A conversation with an old childhood friend (Julia Taylor Ross) starts hinting that not is all at it seems. Like the black mold they find in the walls, the family has a hidden secret that goes right down to the foundation; a secret that infects everything, and that’s about to come back with a vengeance.
The story places Sarah into a sealed box with a minimum of fuss. Doors in the long-vacant house are either padlocked, or locked with keys from both sides; windows have been boarded up tight after local squatters have broken them to get in; electricity and telephone service are out, and cellular reception is nonexistent. It’s a necessary contrivance, but it doesn’t seem forced.
Kentis and Lau pull off their main gimmick with ease. Much like Hitchcock did with Rope, they stitch their takes together with passes across still patches of background. But what with modern compositing techniques they can cover their tracks much better. I counted only about a dozen possible cuts, and most of them are well-lit with enough detail to make a simple splice all but impossible. And then there’s all the difficulties of any long take; any slip, exposed wire, or reflection in a mirror means starting over.
The long takes also place a burden on the cast, and on Olsen in particular. Not that I doubted her going in — especially after her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene — but she absolutely rises to the challenge. Trese and Stevens aren’t bad either, but Olsen is really the center here, and the whole atmosphere hinges on her emotional range.
But Silent House is not merely a gimmick movie with things that go bump in the night. There really is a story; it’s integrated tightly with the action, and the truth dawns on the audience slowly and horribly. It lags a bit in the denouement, but it’s far from the tossed-together excuse to string between a bunch of blurry, shaky scenes that too much horror has degenerated into.
Found-footage may have kicked off a spate of bad imitations, and real-time may go the same way. I hope it proves too difficult for hacks to even attempt, but even if this becomes the new horror movie fad remember: Silent House was the one that did it right.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: it’s a really tough call, but I’m going to err on the side of caution and say it fails.