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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Silent House

SILENT HOUSE (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Chris Kentis & Laura Lau, 2011

Thrillers thrill us because they make us believe them — even if we probably shouldn’t. I didn’t really believe most of Silent House, even though there were reasons I wanted to.

It’s a contemporary variation on the “Old Dark House” lady-in-distress thriller, based on the Uruguayan suspense film La Casa Muda (by Gustavo Hernandez) and it stars the very pretty and convincing Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene, as Sarah, a sensitive and troubled young lady whose somewhat obnoxious father John (Adam Trese) and somewhat enigmatic Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) have joined her at the family’s summer home, to clean it up and prepare it for sale. Also briefly present is a fox-eyed young woman Sophia (played by Julia Taylor Ross) who claims to be one of Sarah’s best friends, though Sarah can’t remember her.

It’s an old dark house all right, even though the movie starts out in the light of day. The doors are locked and the windows boarded up, and the electricity is off — which means, I would think, that they ought to put off cleaning to another day, or at least find more battery-powered lighting, But like many another hapless citizen of horror-land, these people just keep plunging into darkness and more darkness, and finally chaos and mayhem take over. The men appear and disappear, Sarah keeps screaming and hiding under furniture, and we’re pretty sure Sophia will show up somewhere, along with a mysterious young girl and older man who are also lurking on the premises.

It’s not in the least plausible, though it has some surprises — implausible surprises. And some flashy technique. Silent House has been publicized in some quarters as having been made in a single continuous shot, which made it much more interesting to me — though it isn’t true. According to co-director/writer Laura Lau, as quoted by Film Noir Blonde, the movie was shot on a Canon 5 D camera in 13 separate shots, edited together to create the illusion of a single shot. It’s a pretty good illusion, although some of the cuts — the ones that take place, for instance, just after we’re suddenly plunged into darkness — seem pretty obvious. (Lau’s co-director, as he was in the deep sea shocker Open Water, is Chris Kentis, and the busy cinematographer is Igor Martinovic of Man on Wire.)

True, if you look at the Silent House credits in IMDB, there‘s no editor listed. But there is an editorial department, that names six editors working on the film, which would seem to indicate that somebody cut something — besides throats or torsos., or the severed limbs that seem more and more an ominous possibility the more Sarah wanders around through the dark house — in which she’s been locked with Papa John, Uncle Peter, assorted phantasm-looking folks, and something, human or not, that seems to wish her ill.

Now everyone has their weaknesses and I’m actually a sucker for cinematic long takes and extended camera shots, especially in the hands of a genius like Orson Welles (the opening bomb ticking bomb traveling shot in Touch of Evil, or the Amberson’s last ball in The Magnificent Ambersons) or Max Ophuls (the opening of Le Plaisir, Anton Walbrook’s tracking shot monolgue in La Ronde) or Alfred Hitchcock (all of Rope, which also has an illusory “one-shot,” and a lot of Under Capricorn).

Or the great Alexander Sokurov, who actually did shoot one of his films in only one take: the formidable single tracking shot moving inexorably along with our chatty guide, though the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, past walls full of paintings, halls full of statuary, up and down staircases and finally through a glittering grand concert and ball, with throngs of people maving toward the exits and the movie‘s end — a shot executed by the steadicam genius Tilman Butner in Sokurov’s masterpiece Russian Ark. This is for me the single greatest (most complex and most beautiful) single shot in the history of cinema. Watch the film sometime and see if you disagree.

The thirteen shots that make up the illusory one-take of Silent House, on the other hand, are much less of a tour de force. But they are an achievement, of sorts, and they do have their own hypnotics power. Shooting a scene in one take — whether it‘s the Ambersons ball (which the mutilating producers actually sliced up to “save time”) or the party scenes with the young killers Farley Granger and John Dall in Rope — or Robert Altman’s puckish opening one-take confabs in The Player, creates a tension that the audience doesn’t have to register or recognize to feel. For a critic, it cam become a showcase juggling act: How long can the movie keep those balls of emotion in the air, without dropping, or cutting? There’s tension in Silent House and it comes partly from the fact that we’re trapped in those shots, just as Sarah is trapped in the house.

On the other hand, why is she trapped? There’s an exlanation for Sarah’s bizarre predicament, but it doesn’t really kick in until the end, and even then it doesn’t really make much sense. Long unbroken shots in a film can have their own special beauty, but they suffer if the content of the shot, as here, is questionable or just plain uninteresting, If Silent House were actually a one-shot movie, I think I would have been impressed enough by the technical feat to grant it a little foolishness. But it kept me in the dark too long, and those thirteen shots didn’t add up to one great one.

2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Silent House”

  1. Gerald Bohlmann says:

    Just seen the movie – initial comments: most obvious error is when main female charactor meets her friend outside (in daylight), returns inside the house and LOCKS the front door. Shortly thereafter, the brothers come up from the basement, Peter wants car keys, John hands him the keys and then Peter turns around and walks out the front door (which supposedly is already locked). Shortly thereafter, a knock on the front doot, and the main femaly charactor then gets the key, unlocks the door, opens the door only to find no one there. Additionally, a few secenes appear to have the camera “pan” one of the rooms and the only thing on the windows seems to be some “sheer” drapes – while the whole house is dark inside. Thought yuou might be interested.
    Thanks – Jerry

  2. JoJo says:

    I find this to be an odd review. The vast majority of it focuses on the technique of the movie and comparing that to other movies–yet there’s virtually no discussion of the actual content of the movie. I found it to be pretty terrible. As you note, none of it is plausible, and once the “twist” is revealed, it became almost laughable.


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“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima

“They’re still talking about the ‘cathedral of cinema,’ the ‘communal experience,’ blah blah. The experiences I’ve had recently in the theatre have not been good. There’s commercials, noise, cellphones. I was watching Colette at the Varsity, and halfway through red flashes came up at the bottom of the frame. A woman came out and said, ‘We’re going to have to reboot, so take fifteen minutes and come back.’ Then they rebooted it from the beginning, and she had to ask the audience to tell her how far to go. You tell me, is that a great experience? I generally don’t watch movies in a cinema at all. Netflix is the future. It’s the present. But the whole paradigm of a series, binge-watching, it’s quite different. My first reaction is that it’s more novelistic, because if you have an eight-hour season, you can get into complex, intricate things. You can let it breathe and the audience expectations are such that they will let you, where before they wouldn’t have the patience. I think only the surface has been touched with experimenting with that.”
~ David Cronenberg