Silent House: The Accumulating Horror of a Single Shot
The idea of a haunted house movie presented in one single, Rope-like take is a great one. Without jump cuts or other phony scare tactics, the camera stays on Elizabeth Olsen’s Sarah for nearly the film’s entire run time. The viewer eases into a state of empathy with Sarah as she flinches at mysterious noises in the abandoned house she and her father are renovating. As the tension mounts and things start to jump from around corners and behind curtains, these scares might as well be happening physically inside the theater to us. The first three quarters of Silent House do a great job of ratcheting up the terror without a single instance of torture porn.
But a single-shot film is ultimately a gimmick, and if you’re doing a gimmick film, that gimmick has to work completely. Viewers are always looking for the seams, the secret behind the magic trick, and once the continuity of the single shot is broken—note to filmmakers: If you want to make your film feel like one shot, do not place a prominent blood stain on Olsen’s prominent breasts and then fail to make that blood stain stay the same shape from scene to scene—some of the magic dies.
Bear in mind, I said some of the magic dies. Olsen’s performance may not be on a level with last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, but she brings a lot more to the role than the requisite screams. Due to the real-time convention, we’re forced to sit through a few too many scenes of Sarah cowering under a table and trying not to scream, but Olsen, to her credit, makes each scene slightly different as the tension mounts. Sadly, the last climax of the film is obvious and dumb, overexplaining and sucking all the subtlety out of everything that came before. It’s unfortunate that the excellent, quiet nuance that Silent House fosters is beaten to death with a sledgehammer in the final reel.