Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ya Gotta Get a Gimmick

Silent House is one of those films that might be impossible to thoroughly discuss without spoiling. Though there is plenty to say about the gimmicky “single shot” illusion of the filming style, I can’t go into any detail whatsoever without erupting into a fit of how the major twist negates everything that makes the film annoyingly unique in the first place.

So here’s the non-spoilered review of Silent House: it’s a mildly new, occasionally unnerving haunted house(ish) tale with a great central performance and stupid filming gimmick that completely undoes everything about itself in the final act. One could do worse than watching it for 90 minutes, but one could also save his or herself a momentary spike in blood pressure when some things are revealed.

Now open that expired gallon of milk: we’re going to get spoilery.

Quick Plot: Sarah is a spacey young woman spending time with her dad and uncle as they clean up their old summer house, an isolated little property that has apparently been hosting angry squatters during the offseason. On this particular afternoon, our pretty heroine is visited by a mysterious girl claiming to be her old childhood pal. Sarah doesn’t seem to actually remember the woman, but she fakes it well enough before returning upstairs with her dad to throw away some childhood mementos and breathe in some wall mold. Everything is fine and dandy in a poorly lit manner until Sarah’s dad leaves the room, a giant bang is heard, and it becomes increasingly clear that someone has ominous plans for our leads.

Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (the same team that brought us Open Water), Silent House is occasionally effective, particularly in its first hour or so. Having absolutely no clue what menace is tormenting our star works incredibly well, and Elizabeth Olsen has the kind of glassy wide eyes to sell true fear. But much like Open Water, this is a film built more on gimmick than substance, and in that exists two problems:

1-The ‘one shot’ illusion doesn’t really add much to what we’re watching, making us instead constantly distracted by the fact that we can’t really see anything
2-Once the film’s twist is revealed, it negates everything, primarily, the entire one-shot illusion

I’m going to spoil Silent House. And I am not going to feel bad about it:

About halfway through the film, I thought to myself, “I wonder if this is one of those ‘the victim IS the killer’ twists.” But then I said, well, that CAN’T be the case since everything we’ve thus far seen has been this “one continuous (not really) shot” and our eyes have been on Sarah the entire time. So if she is indeed the killer, that means I just watched absolutely nothing.

And then, like a pixie cut sporting French woman wielding an axe in the early 21st century, little Elizabeth Olsen proves to be starring in a nonsensical J-horror of sorts meeting Law & Order: SVU.

Oh yeah: and she did it.

Right. She, this character whom we’ve had our eyes on straight for 90 minutes, somehow managed to take down two much bigger men when we weren’t looking. Except, you know, we WERE looking. For the entire film. Which was “one-shot.” Meaning “one-shot where our eyes were on Sarah the entire time.” But she’s the killer. You missed that I guess.

Much like the better, but still innately flawed High Tension, Silent House doesn’t really deserve to exist as a movie in its current state. See, think back to ANOTHER film with a twist I’m about to spoil, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

Gandalf is working HARD today.

In The Village, the audience gets a twist ending that has no effect on the characters whatsoever. Bryce Dallas Howard’s heroine learns about the twist, but then other factors come into play that negates them in her mind so therefore, the only character actually affected by what happened onscreen is someone played by the director in his signature unnecessary cameo in the final scene. We spent 100 minutes watching something that ultimately has no effect on anything.

Sort of like how in High Tension--

(Sorry dude)

We watch (admittedly, a much better) mess wherein what we think we’re seeing isn’t actually happening in the least. 

Had Silent House been told through more conventional filmmaking techniques, it would not have been a great film but it could have been a good one packing a strong lead and some effective scares. But because it’s based on a well-received Uruguayan film that made waves due to its style, Kentis and Lau have created the equivalent of a stylish rain coat made of shaving cream. Yes, it looks neat, but as soon as you dare test it out for its purpose, the whole thing evaporates.

Silent House is scary at times. I’ll give it that. But once you discover its secret, what you REALLY discover is that every minute of its running time is a fantasy of its makers. The one-shot trick means we can’t even chalk up Sarah’s psychosis to a second personality. How could someone else exist in her mind when we’ve watched her in REAL TIME? 

I am perfectly fine and encouraging of filmmakers using new means to tell stories, just as I am positively okay with token twist endings. But when you pair the two together in a way that doesn’t make sense, it’s like putting hot chocolate on unicorn steak. 

Well, maybe not that analogy since hot chocolate covered unicorn steak sounds positively delicious. My point is this: if you want to use a filming gimmick, you have to be sure it makes sense for the story you want to tell. A one-shot film could be perfectly fine. But when you apply that trick to a script like Silent House, you are annulling the very film you are trying to make. 

In case it’s not clear, I am angry. 

High Notes
As she demonstrated earlier last year with the complexity of Martha Mary May Marlene (or Mandy Melissa Marie Megan Marcia Marcia Marcia, I give up), Olsen is proving to be one of the most interesting actresses to emerge from her generation. Yes, the role is a written like a mess, but Olsen does the best she can to make us not hate Sarah, even when the script calls for her to hide under yet another table

I’ve said this time and time before: it is easier to fight the forces of evil with your hair out of your face. So thank you, Sarah, for grabbing that hair tie amidst the threat of attack

Low Notes

Lessons Learned
When in doubt, hide under furniture. Your sociopathic subconscious will NEVER think to look there

Though production on the actual film has now been discontinued and the far improved technology of the digital world has rendered them obsolete, one should still always keep a Polaroid camera on hand. If nothing else, it’s a mildly effective source of short spurts of light

If you’re worried about the audience not being able to know who a character is in relation to another, be sure to have one constantly acknowledge said relationship in every bit of dialogue, i.e., “My brother can really get on my nerves!” or “I’m not leaving my brother!” or “Look, little brother…” and so on.

Silent House made me very angry. In the words of Project Runway’s spectacular contestant Dimitri, it is a one way monkey but I shall add, it is a one way monkey without directions to that one way. Olsen gives a better performance than the script deserves, and while there are occasional shots of intrigue, there’s also the whole “the camera seems to be lingering on that empty space. I bet there---oh, there goes a shadow” moments that make for a great trailer and predictable movie. If you’re easily infuriated by bad endings, stay away. I imagine the complete nonsense of the twist is what warranted Silent House an “F” grade from theatrical audiences, and while this is certainly a better film than some other Friday night junk, it is indeed built upon a premise that ultimately damns it to a realm of boos hisses.


  1. The whole one shot filming reminds me of classic Doctor Who. It wasn't all shot in one continuous stream, but there was no time at all for reshoots, so if an actor forgot or flubbed their line ("You'll end up as a couple of burnt cinders flying around in space" became "You'll end up as a couple of burnt cinders flying around in Spain"!), or screwed up a big moment (like shooting the bad guy with the gun not actually aiming at said bad guy) there was no reprieve! It stayed in the episode! haha!

  2. That's actually rather awesome. Although it also makes me admit I've never watched a single episode of Doctor Who.


  3. Never fear, I haven't thrown a vase or any rotten fruit at you, since there are well over 700 individual eps of DW! Yikikes! (The way I can hold the claim of having seen pretty much all of them is thanks to them being on tv a few years ago, with one ep every weekday!)

  4. THat's the thing! And I've been told that the series gets better as it goes, but that I shouldn't start in the middle so it's REALLY hard to be motivated to start watching a series that takes years to get good!

  5. Well the classic series is awesome all the way through (minus a few bad eps), but it's the new series that is a MINEFIELD! It's tough to watch unless aware of the bad eps and the good ones! haha! So yeah, the new version is a 'took years to be near consistently great', but since the series practically rebooted itself five years in, it's no problem! haha!

    ...Yeah, NERD ALERT! Doctor Who is to me what Buffy the Vanpire Slayer is to you!

  6. Huh, so they kept the same bad twist that ruined the Uruguayan original they needlessly remade here? Brilliant.

    Danger, another Doctor Who nerd here. I'd recommend just starting with "season 5" of New Who, which is a fine point for starting out - and great - and then dipping your feet into some of the classics (early to mid Tom Baker era for the quality and less than tight continuity, for example).
    Umm, yeah.

  7. From what I understand (I haven't seen the original), the ending here is a little more definitive. I don't know the specific differences, but the Internet led me to believe the Uruguayan ending was a little more suggestive. This one all but punches you in the face with what happened, even though it STILL makes no sense because WE SAW EVERYTHING HAPPEN IN ONE TAKE!

    (Serenity now!)

    AnyWHO, Doctor Who is daunting! I have some people telling me to start with the TEnant seasons, others saying that's blasphemy and I should start at the start. I feel like between friends, readers, and Community's Abed, I REALLY need to start before I don't get ANY joke or reference ever again!

  8. I shudder to think how you could make the original ending even less subtle. It doesn't leave anything ambiguous, and makes as little sense with what we saw happening as it seems to do here.

    I'm afraid Who fandom is so fractured in its tastes, everyone will recommend a different era/lead writer/whatever as the best and most appropriate thing to watch first. Though I really think starting at the beginning is something one does once one has already fallen in love with the whole thing.

  9. I have a feeling I will hate the original with the same fury.

    Hmm on the start time. We discussed this recently with Buffy: some people say it's better to give potential viewers a tease of the great episodes, and THEN go back to the weak season 1 (which worked on me). I recently started initiating my fella into it and started right from the first episode and all is going well. It's tough, since SO many shows improve as time goes on and if continuity isn't a huge deal (am I correct in assuming it's not from season to season on Dr. Who?) then the jumping around might be the best, if not purest way to go.

  10. New Who is a bit more continuity heavy than the old series, but that's only a problem if you don't want to start with New Who season one or season five, really. There's not much continuity you need to know about in the older show at all, unless you watch very late period Tom Baker.

    I think it's easier to live with the weaker beginning of Buffy when you already know it's going to improve. I kind of enjoyed watching the actors improving from whatever they think they're doing at the start of the show.

  11. Nevah fear, Emily, Classic Doctor Who barely has continuity outside of 'the Doctor is the Doctor and he has a Tardis'! Atlantis was destroyed three seperate times, and Earth has about thirty different futures! (That's what happens when the BBC doesn't show repeats for decades! Continuity shrivels and dies painfully! haha!)

  12. True House. I continuously told my fella "I promise it will get better!" and considering anyone alive today has heard their friends and family ramble on and on about what a good show it is, I think season 1 shows enough kernels of possibility to keep the dubious going. Thanks for the advice on Who!

    And Chris, I do appreciate the ease of non-continuity based shows. Even Law & Order:SVU has gone the storyline route! It's maddening to the short attention spanned!

  13. NCIS briefly developed the same problem recently. Five episodes in a row focused on the same bad guy! There weren't even any breather eps in between!

  14. Ugh. Don't they understand?! If I wanted a continuous story, I'd watch cable!