Whenever a new movie tries to apply an atypical style of filmmaking, I get leery. The majority of those cases use it as a gimmicky cop-out. Take, for example, 'The Blair Witch Project,' a horror movie that banks on being found footage. Let's be honest – if it wasn't shown as "found footage," it wouldn't be worth watching. Since 'The Blair Witch' debuted, countless movies have applied the "found footage" technique. I think it makes for lazy storytelling, after all, who needs to write an actual explanatory ending to a scary movie when all you have to do is kill off the camera operator and – poof – that's the end of your movie. No original ending necessary.
I failed to see 'Silent House' when it premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, but I sure heard a lot about it while standing in the press lines for other films. What was everyone talking about? How it was shot as one single continuous take? No – but close. Very close. First, Elizabeth Olsen's performance (she also popped up on the Sundance radar that same year with 'Martha Marcy May Marlene') - but coming in at a very close second buzz-wise was the supposed single-take shoot of 'Silent House.' This had me worried – especially because audience members were claiming to have seen a few hidden cuts and the people behind it kept defending it as a single-take movie (which they have since admitted it is not). For me, this was one red flag of a gimmick that had me worried.
Now having seen 'Silent House,' I can attest that the single-take aspect of the film is not at all a gimmick. It actually enhances the film. You completely forget about it until the camera pans to those shots that allow for well-hidden cuts – of which there are several (the co-directors claim that the movie is comprised of about 12 long takes). The single-take style creates a sense of reality that is present in very few horror movies; you truly feel like you're wandering through this dark house trying to get away from the killer or possible killers that are also locked inside. A claustrophobic feeling is conveyed. I don't tolerate those stupid horror movies – like the recent 'The Woman in Black' - where things pop out in front of the camera that the characters should have seen from their point of view long before the audience, yet when it jumps into the frame we're supposed to be afraid. The single-take nature of 'Silent House' causes it to avoid that pitfall entirely. Although it's not a P.O.V. movie, it pulls off that same effect. You see what our central character sees. She's the star of the film and we never leave her side. When she slowly pokes her head into a pitch black room, uncertain if there's a killer waiting for her inside, you slowly put your head out there with her.
Like I said, Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of 'Full House''s Olsen Twins) plays the lead in 'Silent House,' Sarah. The film takes place in real time as she, her father and her uncle are clearing out their summer lake house for renovation. Because the secluded house is empty for the majority of the year, the windows and doors are completely boarded up, rendering the house a dark nightmare. Our trio must use battery-powered lanterns and flashlights to get around since the power has been shut off due to water damage – hence the house renovation. Also due to the remote location, cell phones not only don't work, but they're never once checked for service. Hallelujah. It's refreshing to have cell phones not be a major plot point in a scary movie.
Odd things begin happening once Sarah's uncle angrily storms out of the house and heads into the nearest town – which is about 30 minutes away – for some supplies. When Sarah and her dad start clearing out their old rooms, Sarah hears a thump in the room next door. As she goes in to see what her dad knocked over, she can't find him. In panic mode, Sarah starts running from room to room looking for him. When she finally finds him, he's severely wounded, so she sets off on a mission to get the hell out of dodge, find help for her dad and get away from the person or persons who are apparently messing with them from inside this boxed-up house.
I feared that 'Silent House' was doomed because of its style, but the big third act problem that plagues the film has nothing to do with its shooting style. Don't worry, I'm not going to spoil the film's ending, but I will say that it's less than original. In fact, the ending has been used so many times now that when you try piecing together the puzzle, you dismiss that notion entirely. That ending has been used so many times that no one uses it anymore – no one except for these filmmakers. The shooting style doesn't ruin 'Silent House' – the ending does.
'Silent House' has the makings of a great original horror film. The style works perfectly, the concept is fantastic and the actors are more than capable, but the film's resolution is sub par. What could have been great is ruined in the last fifteen minutes by the traps of lazy, unoriginal screenwriting. Life is too busy and too short to waste it on run-of-the-mill horror movies, so I'd save 'Silent House' for when you have some time to kill.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal has given 'Silent House' the hard core combo pack treatment with a Region A BD-50, a Region 1 DVD, a digital copy and an ultraviolet digital copy. The two discs and digital copy codes are housed in a blue two-disc elite keepcase that slides vertically into a sleek cardboard keepcase. Before getting to the main menu, you must skip over trailers for 'Being Flynn,' 'The Grey,' '18.104.22.168,' 'Cat Run' and 'American Reunion' to get to the standard Universal menu.
Considering that 'Silent House' is a new film shot digitally, you'd expect its 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer to be quite pristine – but that's not the case.
Sure, the picture quality of the film itself is crisp and clear, but it doesn't hold a candle to how great the opening Universal vanity reel appears. Shot in the dark, strong details are rarely visible. Despite being housed on a more-than-big-enough BD-50, the dim lighting makes for a lot of instances of banding. The black levels in this black-filled picture are less than deep and powerful, almost always appearing as a bright shade of gray. It's obvious throughout the film whenever a sections of the screen are touched up with darkness because the artificial black levels are deeper than the natural ones. It's during those touched-up moments that banding occurs, almost always in the added darkness.
There are only a few instances of color throughout the whole film. In the beginning, Sarah dons a red scarf that features strong vibrancy against the pale dark backdrops. The fluorescent lighting kills fleshtones throughout the whole movie and gives cast members deathly complexions. A few scenes feature standard bulb lighting and provide a much needed relief from the fluorescents. The hue of the bulb lighting dishes up fantastic warm fleshtones.
Fine details can be seen, but the lighting and mediocre shadow delineation tend to chew them up. When the lighting it bright, the details are great - but there aren't too many scene with bright lighting. Unlike a lot of indie handheld movies, the camera operator does a fantastic job properly racking the focus and keeping those details visible; however, dim lighting completely removes everything good from this disc. At times, the dimness creates a layered effect that makes it appear as though the sound stage is flooded with dense fog.
Aside from the bands, aliasing is the only other compression flaw that rears it head here. Digital noise and artifacts are absent, as are edge enhancement and DNR.
'Silent House' arrives with a nice little 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that knows how to utilize sound mixing for dramatic effect, but on occasion lacks the conviction to follow through. The film opens with a crane shot looking straight down on Sarah resting on the cloudy shore of the serene nearby lake. From all channels emit the quietest gentle sloshings of a chilly lake water. Throughout the entire film, the lossless audio mix is used in subtle mood-setting ways like this. When Sarah tries to hide herself from her assailants in the pitch black unfinished basement, the picture goes black, allowing you to soak in the well-placed mix. Scuffing soles on a dusty concrete floor. Leaky pipes and the drip-drops of water falling into a shallow pool. Objects with metallic legs screeching across the floor as they are bumped into. Footsteps creaking on the floorboards above. Steps moving down the hallway coming closer. And closer. You will see all of these images in your mind without ever seeing a single frame – all thanks to a great effects mix.
More than half of the movie is void of scoring. If you discount the ominous bassy tones as scoring, then 99 percent of the film is void of it entirely. Only one scene is composed of actual multi-instrument non-ominous tone scoring. The ominous sounds heighten the tension without ever warranting your attention; they serve their purpose well. The one scene with traditional scoring, however, undermines the power of those tones and the strong and fitting use of silence. The score in this one scene sounds just fine, but is completely out of place in this film. Had the entire movie used scoring, that wouldn't be the case – but as is, it's an off-setting distraction.
Not that a bottled-up indie horror movie calls for it, but the audio mix of 'Silent House' is strong example of subtlety and silence. It doesn't use tons of effects, but it knows when and how to use them. When used, the effects establish an awesome environment.
I originally thought that 'Silent House' was a purely gimmick-driven horror movie that uses it's single-take status as a crutch. While I was correct about the film not reaching great heights, it was never because of the seemingly single-take; the demise of this film is the resolution to its slow-building rising action. The explanation for the terror and horror is an over-used cliché that you'll suspect ten minutes into the movie but completely write off because nobody applies that ending anymore. The idea and execution for the first 70 minutes of 'Silent House' is fantastic, but the last 15 minutes are less than worthy of what precedes them. The video quality is hardly on par with what we expect from new titles, but the audio's use of effects and lack of sounds is very strong. With only a stale commentary, the special features are absolutely lacking. Unless you literally have time to kill with nothing better to watch, I do not recommend 'Silent House.'