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Silent House / *** (R)

Posted Wednesday, April 4, 2012, at 9:22 PM

(Photo)
Elizabeth Olsen is terrorized by the "Silent House".
Open Road Films and Liddell Entertainment present a film directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau. Written by Lau. Based on the film "The Silent House" by Gustavo Hernández. Running time: 85 min. Rated R (for disturbing violent content and terror).

There's a misconception that originality equals greatness. The Ancient Greeks, when they invented drama, theorized that there were only a few original story lines and that every story was a variation on those few. The new horror film "Silent House" isn't original. It couldn't be by its very nature because it is a remake of a foreign film, as so many American horror movies are. Where it distinguishes itself is in its execution.

"Silent House" tells its story in one continuous shot, or at least it appears to. I've read that it was actually shot in 10-minute intervals. Carefully choreographed camera movements and digital manipulation of the picture disguise the edits. If you're really paying attention you can spot where these edits might be. Of course, the filmmakers don't want you to do that. They want you to be caught up in the suspense and mystery of what is unfolding on screen. They do a fairly effective job of distracting from their own gimmick.

We meet Sarah. She's the daughter of John, who is fixing up an old family waterfront property in order to sell it. Her uncle Peter is helping. Often the two men bicker like... well, brothers. Someone has been vandalizing the property while they work on it--breaking windows, cutting the power, etc. Because of this, John has boarded up all the house's windows and they keep the door locked at all times. The key for the front door hangs just on the inside of it. Since this is a horror movie, we know that it won't be there once it's really needed.

The camera is in the house most of the movie, and the boarded up windows and lack of a power source create the impression of perpetual night. The characters must carry around their own personal light sources everywhere they go with only a few rooms having power provided by gas generators. The fact that the camera stays focused on Sarah throughout the entire movie's short running time also greatly limits the audience's perception of what is happening. This element will pay off in the film's final moments.

After Uncle Peter leaves for supplies, Sarah's dad disappears. She's listening to him walk down stairs when she hears a house shuddering thud. She can't find her dad, but she does eventually discover that she isn't alone.

"Silent House" plays on the basic fears that fuel our strange attraction to horror. The elation that comes with a feeling of helplessness is running just under the surface of this film with an electrical current that threatens to strike out at any moment. Then it plays on another fear--our ability to trust our own perceptions. Nobody likes to be wrong in how they see things. Misperception is a greater fear than most of us realize.

It eventually becomes obvious that not everything Sarah is seeing could be real, but what is the illusion and what is real? When your senses are restricted, as Sarah's and the audience's, are, on what criterion do you base your judgment of reality? It is this confusion upon which "Silent House" bases its horror. We are trapped in the house with Sarah. We have even less stimulus upon which to base our perception of the events that take place in that house, and when a strange man is grabbing at your leg and it's too dark to really see him well, only a knee-jerk reaction can be relied upon. But, what if there's more to the story?

Some people--who've seen many horror movies--will be able to guess the secret that is at the heart of "Silent House". This movie can be just as effective for them as for those who don't suspect where the movie is going. The gimmick of the single shot movie may be a gimmick, but it's one that is used to shape and restrict the audience's perception of the events in the movie. "Silent House" is scary, and that's really all a horror movie has to be.

"Silent House" is no longer playing in this area, but I welcome any comments from those who may have seen it during its brief run in Marshall.

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A Penny in the Well
ANDREW D. WELLS
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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