Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Silent House - Theatrical Review


Release Date: March 9, 2012

Watching a woman under extreme duress as she is relentlessly stalked throughout a house by an unknown assailant isn't exactly what I would call entertaining but I'll be damned if it isn't intense at times.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Edwards Irvine 21
Time: 1:20 pm March 10, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 28 min
Studio: Open Road

Loves: When filmmakers try to do something different
Likes: Elizabeth Olsen
Neutral: The cliche and underwhelming payoff
Hates: When filmmakers try to do something different and fail
Remake: Of a 2010 Uruguyan film called The Silent House

Can a gimmick really make a movie better? That was just one of the many questions I was asking myself as I left the auditorium where I had just witnessed what is a technical marvel on a scale that only true cinephiles would notice but ALMOST as much of a failure in its execution. You have to ask yourself whether or not you are the type of person who can appreciate a film for the pure craftsmanship it took to make it. If you can look beyond the trite plot about a woman being pursued by someone who just wants to hurt her real bad then there is a lot to like about Silent House. By fusing together two of my favorite cinematic gimmicks, the extended take and having events unfold in real time, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have made a film that succeeds at being both a unique and conventional entry into the horror/thriller genre which is powered by a tour de force performance by its star Elizabeth Olsen and only let down by some unfortunate stumbles along the way.

There is no real story to be surmised about Silent House. With the film being presented in real time it almost negates the usual set up for films in this genre, we don't get an introductory scene in the traditional sense and nothing that really establishes anything beyond the setting itself. The first shot of the film is an overhead view of Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) who is overlooking the nearby lake. We meet her through her interactions with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) as they are in the middle of renovating an old family home for whatever reasons they may have. There is no power to the house, their cell phones have no reception due to their remote locale and they have no neighbors for miles. It is the perfect setting for what essentially becomes a woman's battle to survive an unknown assailant that is stalking her relentlessly throughout the giant old house that she becomes a prisoner in.

Sarah prepares to enter the house for the last time.

I really don't have too much to say about Silent House pertaining to the narrative itself at this time. Most of anything worth talking about would give away the few twists and turns it takes which even with my indifference to the eventual resolution and explanation for the events that unfold I still wouldn't want to deprive anyone even slightly interested in the film of the surprises the film holds for unsuspecting viewers. I hardly ever praise a film for its trailer but whomever was responsible for that theatrical trailer is to be commended. It provided all the information I needed to know but never let slip any images that could lead to potential spoilers so when I actually sat down and started watching it I was sort of caught off guard by where the story, as thin as it is, goes. About the only downside to this is that a film that had a good trailer for once never really lived up to the promise made within that trailer.

"Presented as one single film take...", that is the moment during that trailer where I perked up and started paying attention. I love all the different techniques used when creating a movie and because of that I tend to get excited whenever a filmmaker attempts something new or challenging. The "single film take" gimmick is not new, director Brian Depalma's Snake Eyes has one of the greatest single takes of all time in my opinion and as a matter of fact many of his films have numerous scenes done in one take. Probably one of my favorite films from the past decade, Children of Men had some of the most elaborately staged single takes in film history. While I know most common movie goers will never notice such filmmaking techniques, to any film geeks out there like me it is quite a thrill to see such an ambitious undertaking. The idea of an ENTIRE film done in one take is, to me anyway, a sort of wet dream come true. The possibilities for structuring the film in a way that eschews common filmmaking tools and tricks makes way for what can become something new and great which just excites me to no end.

Hearing things upstairs is never a good sign.

Then you have the reality of the situation...how is it possible to film an entire 88 minute long movie in one single take? While it may be possible I don't think it is very feasible which is why Silent House is "presented" in one single take. My dreams of a film without tricks and tools of the trade are suddenly shattered by that one word that serves as almost a loophole for the filmmakers. There are moments during the film where I cannot tell for the life of me when they cut away, or cut away at all. I could swear that the first thirty to forty minutes is all one single take, which is a feat unto itself but the illusion is destroyed the second a very obvious cutaway happens at the mid section of the film. It may seem insignificant to many or all who read this but given the fact that I was being sold on this being a different experience from most other films in its respective genre it is an extreme letdown when that gimmick isn't made good on and handled so poorly.

I was completely invested in what was happening up until that point, the camera never left Sarah (with only one or two major exceptions that only the most observant viewer will catch), it was building the tension ever so slightly by being with her every second of screen time. When she went to go pack her things we watched her slowly go through everything and pack it away. When she went to light some candles we followed her throughout the house as she methodically lit every single candle as slowly as she could. Most viewers would probably find all those mundane tasks extremely boring and rightfully so. But all those moments are the building blocks to creating this reality. About the only negative I can see leveled against these opening moments is that to most ordinary film goers these scenes will seem to go on forever and feel extremely tiring with nothing ever happening for long stretches of time.

It doesn't take very long for Sarah to be on her own.

The patient viewer is rewarded though with some truly nerve racking and nail biting sequences once Sarah finally finds herself alone in this boarded up house with no power and no way out. The single take format truly starts to shine here as we move about the house with her checking every nook and cranny. In a normal movie of this type we would often have the camera position itself and cut away at certain angles to try and imply something to the viewer that isn't necessarily there. While there are still a handful of shots like that in the film it never truly relies on them. When Sarah is being chased down a dark hall by...someone, the camera is always on HER. When she reaches a door and is frantically attempting to put a key in its lock to open it, the camera has a tight focus on her hands fumbling around with the lock which never cuts away. Both those scenarios would usually have a shot of the person stalking her or at least some sort of image implying such a thing. With the camera always on her and never cutting away it actually heightened the tension for me because, like Sarah, I had no idea how close this perpetrator is to catching up to her. Unless she looks back, we don't look back. The end result is a very immersive experience that few other films of this ilk have rarely achieved.

So what's the downfall to all of this then? Why am I lukewarm on the film as a whole if I was so impressed with its technical merits? With such an amazing setup and an impeccable amount atmosphere during its first half it was a real let down when it decided to ditch everything it was building up to and instead switch gears towards a more psychological conclusion. Where the story goes isn't exactly horrible but in comparison with how well the film constructed itself in that first half it was an extreme let down when it decided to lean on more conventional methods of trying to scare and shock the audience. Other than a very well done scene involving a Polaroid camera just about everything in that last third of the film falls apart due to a lack of logic concerning how certain scenes earlier can't be explained in relation to what is revealed later, including the cheap tricks used to try and freak the audience out which undervalues much of the tension it worked so hard to create.

Most of the movie is shot from this angle...get used to it.

Another problem is that the further it goes on and the more it starts to reveal to us the less frightening everything becomes. It has always been a problem with almost every scary film, save for a few standouts here and there (The Shining, The Exorcist or even the very first Scream), where it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the tension and the scare factor up once the audience fully understands what is going on. It eventually becomes overly reliant on the one aspect that escapes most films in this genre, an interesting plot. Silent House has a wafer thin plot at best and when the reveal happens it becomes a tedious bore for the remaining minutes it lasts. By the time it got to the end, even the gimmicks that lured me into that theater in the first place started to lose their luster. There was only one thing that helped me labor through those last moments and made the film as a whole a worthwhile experience at all and that is the gripping and horrifying performance by Elizabeth Olsen.

The opening scenes with her are nothing special, she isn't asked to do a whole lot other than look curious and cautious as she explores the house. But later when she is running for her life she delivers one of the most exhausting performances I have ever seen. It's not so much that she has to act frightened and terrified for most of the film (although that is an accomplishment in its own right) but that in conjunction with the single take gimmick, she is asked to stay in a heightened sense of hysteria for what appears to be an excruciating amount of time. Whatever it took for her to reach that deep inside herself to manifest such a consistent state of terror is to be commended. It was her commitment to the role that helped me overlook the obvious problems with the plot and the couple of moments when the film would break its reality. If there were one thing I could recommend this film on without question it would be Elizabeth Olsen and what she brings to the table.

Well there you have it, Silent House shoots for the moon with its mixture of real time and single take shenanigans and misses the mark due to some unfortunate stumbles in the editing department and a very conventional horror/thriller resolution that will leave most viewers feeling more underwhelmed than frightened. It's only saving graces are its ambitions, as flawed as they are, and a powerhouse performance by Elizabeth Olsen. I cannot recommend to general audiences that this needs to be experienced in the theater but it would make an interesting watch for anyone curious about it. I suggest that when it becomes available that you...




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