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'Silent House' an unsung exercise in terror -- with no cuts!
July 20, 2012
***1/2 (out of four)
Every time an innovative horror film comes out, some people claim it’s dumb and not scary.
It would take a separate article to explain this, though I suspect it has something to do with defiance (“you can’t scare me”) and a fondness for gore, which is often low-key in ground-breaking horror (“Psycho,” “Blair Witch Project,” "Paranormal Activity").
In any case, I can’t side with the many folks who disliked “Silent House.”
For one thing, it scared the living crap out of me. Better yet, it’s been years since I’ve seen such a bravura piece of film-making: 88 minutes in one continuous take, with no cuts.
Talk about rehearsals.
Actually, director Chris Kentis has admitted that he used a few concealed edits -- but then, even Alfred Hitchcock had to do that when he tried the same thing 60 years ago in “Rope.”
“Silent House” makes “Rope” look like a walk in the park.
Just out on DVD, the film stars Elizabeth Olsen, still basking in the raves she received for last year’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” -- though that film was unknown when Kentis hired her for “House.”
She is sensational as Sarah, who is virtually never offscreen in this tense tale of a girl trapped in a house that’s supposed to be empty but isn’t.
Kentis’s camera seems to cover two miles in the course of this story. Starting with an overhead lakeside shot, it moves overland, inside, up three floors and down into the basement, around walls, outside, into and back out of a car, plunging into bright light and pitch-black darkness -- always keeping Sarah in range, yet also showing just enough around her to keep us literally squirming in our seats.
And this is no gimmick. True, one can’t help reflecting on methodology as the film proceeds -- probably more often than Kentis really wanted.
Yet the technique creates an overpowering claustrophobia; we really feel there is no escape, no relief, no getting away to some broader perspective; and as the last act spirals into unvarnished terror and a spell-binding climax, one finally does forget about the lack of cuts entirely.
But the ending isn’t gimmicky either. It raises almost as many questions as it answers; were it not for tepid reviews even from non-critics, I’d suggest “Silent House” might become the sort of cult film that people watch again and again, arguing heatedly over details. Perhaps it will anyway.
The film’s other great strength is its broad gothic symbolism, which makes sense of some narrative elements that initially don’t square up. I can’t say much about this, but I will mention the boarded-up rooms, the infectious mold, and the way Sarah can’t seem to escape.
As a bonus, the film’s deep-seated terror is achieved with only modest bloodshed.
If it weren’t for some lame dialog near the end, this would be the first time I gave four stars to a straightforward horror film.