I knew very little about this movie before going into the theater tonight. It was playing at the cheap theater by my house which is crazy old and outdated but they sometimes get the movies that either didn’t play at the big multiplexes or only played for a weekend before getting yanked.
I had the auditorium to myself, which is how I like it.
I only go see movies here that I either missed the first run and really wanted to see, or (more often) it’s a movie that I wasn’t really sure I wanted to see at all. Silent House was one of those movies. All I knew about it was that it starred Elizabeth Olsen and that the entire movie is presented as one single shot. Otherwise I knew nothing and my only real motivation to see it was that it was a horror movie and it happened to be playing after my shift ended tonight.
The movie was written and directed by the husband and wife team behind the 2003 movie Open Water. Strangely, I felt about the same about this movie as did about Open Water. Which is to say that I respected the ambition of the filmmakers, and the technical skill it took to pull off such an unusual approach… but the movie itself didn’t really deliver.
Open Water was an entire movie of two people floating in the ocean. Ambitious and interesting, but ultimately just not that great of a movie.
Silent House was certainly ambitious, and I think I like it a little bit more than I liked Open Water (mostly because of Elizabeth Olsen) but it still could have been a lot better.
It IS presented as one shot. Clearly there were cuts, and once the action got rolling, the opportunities for cuts started presenting themselves (a lot of quick panning and shaky handheld running and shots of complete darkness) but for the first twenty minutes or so, I couldn’t see where they possibly could have cut. I don’t know just how long their various takes were, but I’m willing to bet that they had to do takes that lasted a good seven or eight minutes.
I have to assume that because some of the acting in this movie really took me out of it. Because of the unique filming style, it was left to the actors to try and talk like real people talk to each other. We’re spoiled by movie editing and pacing, so when that goes out the window, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch actors try and perform without it.
Essentially there are four actors in the film. Elizabeth Olson plays… some girl. The main girl. And three actors that I’ve never seen before play her father, her uncle and this weird childhood friend who shows up for a couple of scenes. Unfortunately, everyone who wasn’t Elizabeth Olsen seemed to be out of their depth as far as acting chops went. I don’t know if it was the unusual set-up or if we were just dealing with a broad spectrum of talent, but it felt like the first twenty minutes or so was a strange, boring play starring inexperienced, uncomfortable actors burdened with the thankless job of trying to dump as much exposition on the audience before everything melts down.
We learn through a series of awkward, clunky conversations that Elizabeth Olsen, her father and her uncle are selling this house that Elizabeth grew up in, and that they only come up there a couple times a year and that sometimes squatters move in and sometimes people break the windows so the windows have to be boarded up and oh yeah also rats ate the wiring so the electricity is out (because that happens) and that oh yeah the phones aren’t hooked up and oh yeah our cell phones don’t work around here for some reason and oh yeah our doors have stupid locks where the keys go on the inside so that if you don’t have the key you just can’t leave the house.
There’s a LOT of really silly situational bullshit we have to just accept in order for this film to work. Enough that it damages the movie a fair bit. The first half of the movie (once the action starts) is spent watching Elizabeth Olsen trying to escape from the house. It’s frustrating to watch because it really should not be that difficult to get out of a three story house. Yes the windows are boarded up and the door locks in some weird way that nobody’s house does, but come on.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
So yeah, there’s her dad and her dad’s brother and they’re doing some sort of renovation on the house, getting it ready to sell it. They start to hear strange noises and then a mysterious person knocks the dad out and chases Elizabeth around for a good long while. We see a lot of her on her hands and knees hiding under things, holding her breath and crying while the mysterious person walks slowly around the room almost discovering her. We get that set-up about three times too many. As the movie progresses things start to get crazier and crazier until everything just goes bananas at the end.
Obviously I won’t spoil anything specific for you, but I was a little surprised at where the movie ended up. If only because the format didn’t seem to lend itself to what we ultimately got.
I should talk a bit about the “single shot” presentation. They did a damned good job making that work. Like I said, for at least first twenty minutes I couldn’t see where they could have made a cut. It was seamless. The movie follows Elizabeth almost exclusively, and they managed to keep the camera moving and repositioned and doing interesting things, all while navigating this cluttered, dark house. They dealt with stairs and mirrors and all kinds of different light sources. Whoever ran that camera seriously knew what they were doing.
Speaking of the camera, this film was shot on a Canon 5D which is basically a glorified point and shoot retail camera. It costs between two and three grand and I had absolutely no idea watching the movie. They’re using that camera on a lot of TV shows now (House, The Walking Dead, Hawaii Five-O) and I was pretty happy to learn that they were able to use it to film this entire movie. Especially since so much of it takes place in low-light. The gap between professional and consumer cameras is disappearing fast.
(here’s a photo of the president using one. Just because.)
That’s more of a personal interest than anything particularly relevant to the movie itself. Moving on.
There’s definitely a lot of mystery and intrigue in this story. It’s clumsy and somewhat predictable, but it’s mysterious and intriguing enough to mention. One thing I have to credit them with is that even though what was actually going on with her family was obvious pretty damned quickly (even maybe intentionally obvious) the way they ultimately got to that revalidation was interesting, and I didn’t see it coming.
Because of the way it’s shot, it feels like a found footage movie. It isn’t and they never pretend that it is, but because it’s entirely handheld and often shaky and clearly the work of a camera-man who is following our lead around, it has the feeling of a documentary or on-location news footage. So we still occasionally get that effect of tricking our brains into thinking we’re seeing something real.
I didn’t know until after I got home and started doing some reading that this is a remake of a movie from Uruguay. Once I found that out, I lost a bit of what little enthusiasm I had for this movie. Not because I have an issue with remakes, but because so much of what made this movie interesting was the one-take gimmick, and if all they had to do was copy what someone else did with new actors, then that’s not nearly as impressive as I originally thought.
But I also haven’t seen the original. From what I can tell reading up on it, it sounds like it was a good piece more intense. Rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity. There definitely wasn’t any disturbing violent content or graphic nudity in the movie I saw tonight.
ONE THING I WILL SAY THOUGH… and I can’t believe I’m about to suggest that this a negative aspect of the film… I’m just going to come out and say it. As we learned in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen happens to be blessed with particularly pleasant looking breasts. In this film, Silent House, she’s running around in a white tank top, and frequently her boobs are pushed forward or she’s leaning over and, well… there’s a lot of her boobs in this movie. Not naked boobs, but overt, clothed boobs. It got to the point where I started finding it distracting. I don’t think it was entirely on me and my boob-seeking vision. I think it was intentional. Whether or not it was because they thought “hey, boobs are great, let’s get em out there as much as we can” (and they’re right almost any other time) or because there is a lot of subtle (and not so subtle) sexual overtones in this movie, and they wanted to keep that sexual vibe ever present in some way or another, I don’t know. Either way, I found it a little distracting. I can’t say that I wish they hadn’t made that choice, but it’s a note I would have given if they’d asked me. They never ask me.
Oh, thinking about boobs reminds me of something else about this movie.
I kept thinking that the Uncle character looked (both in his physical appearance and the way he was dressed and held his flashlight and gun) like the lead character in the video game Silent Hill 2. It’s probably moronic to suggest that it was intentional (I mean, jeans and a shirt and jacket aren’t exactly unique clothes) but I do know that any time I saw him on screen, I found myself thinking about Silent Hill, which was thematically appropriate.
More than anything it left me wishing I was watching a new Silent Hill movie. Preferably starring Elizabeth Olsen with lots of crazy sex monsters and shit. Also boobs.
Anyway. I don’t know what else I can really say about this movie. Elizabeth Olsen’s performance elevated it significantly. The cleverness of the set-up only took it so far, and bad writing and bad acting really dragged this movie down toward the bottom half of mediocre. It made me want to watch the original movie, because it IS an interesting approach, and the direction the story took toward the end might be more impressive in a better movie.
PS: Who the fuck has a pool table on the third floor of their house? NOBODY that’s who.