The Silent House Review

The Silent House film still

Score

The Silent House chills your bones even if it doesn’t quite get under your skin.

From the spiffy 3D of 1953’s House of Wax to the mock-doc histrionics of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the horror film has proved a fertile place for formal experimentation. After all, no one questions the point of something if it’s petrifying, and where better to innovate than from the margins?

Unfortunately, for every envelope-shunting eureka moment there’s cheap gimmickry aplenty – William Castle’s electrified seats and Smell-O-Vision spring to mind, although the two were, sadly, never combined. Perhaps cheesiest of all was the 'Werewolf Break' in The Beast Must Die, a 30-second countdown inviting viewers to guess the culprit – the producer, presumably – or just nip out for a cheeky slash.

So it’s with a little trepidation that even the most hardened horror fan will approach The Silent House, a 78-minute Uruguayan spook story shot, apparently, in one unbroken take (although it looks more like five plus, albeit cleverly concealed). By necessity the set-up is a simple one – Laura (Florencia Colucci) and her father (Gustavo Alonso) prepare Nestor’s (Abel Tripaldi) remote cottage for sale – so there’s no need to dwell too much on plot, particularly as no one else has.

To begin with the ever-present, ever-juddering camera irritates where it should immerse. Although there are legimate reasons for not using a steadicam, every bump jolts us out of the story, reminding us that Laura is being filmed by a cinematographer rather than shadowed by an all-seeing eye. Once she’s alone in the dark, however, it’s a different story – a shit-scary one.

As in The Blair Witch, the sense that we’re exploring an oppressive, 360-degree reality rather than a set makes up for any amateurish moments, and the insistently creepy atmosphere is punctured by some brilliant heart-in-mouth gotchas.

Besides the clever use of Polaroid photos, which map real time the same way director Gustavo Hernández aspires to, there’s no depth or subtext here; the decision to film in this manner reducing everything to a meal of condiments – all salt and pepper, no sustenance. But so what?

Ambitious, technically accomplished and, in places, extraordinarily effective, The Silent House chills your bones even if it doesn’t quite get under your skin.

View 9 comments

Anton Bitel

3 years ago
Knowing, e.g., that Herzog actually did drag a steamboat up a mountain and then really did ride it down rapids makes a huge difference to our reception of Fitzcarraldo. Of course Herzog was 'causing himself a lot of unnecessary bother' in doing so, but it's precisely this quixotic approach to filmmaking that adds to the film's impact and legend. Ditto with the single-continuous-take approach to The Silent House. It is true that the film need not have been filmed that way - but that it was is part of what makes it stand out from otherwise similar products. Of course, the illusion of a single continuous take can have a similar impact - but I don't believe it is the same.
I know next to nothing about digital cameras, and have certainly never used one - but I had thought that the maximum capacity for a single take was determined chiefly by the size of the camera's hard drive - and that the storage space on most decent cameras can easily be expanded by add-ons and peripherals. There have been other single-take feature-length films since the advent of digicam (Timecode 2000, Russian Ark).

Anton Bitel

3 years ago
Nice one.
I have it on good authority that the whole film (apart from the coda) really was shot in a single, fluid take, with no tricky splices or edits added in later. That this is hard to believe just adds to the director's (and cinematographer's) rep.
Completely agree that the film is fun but forgettable. The limitations of the one-take setup make the footage of Laura playing cat and mouse in the house begin to drag way too early. Hernández is, though, rather clever in the way that he uses a one-take shakicam filming style - conventionally associated with on-the-spot realism, even with reportage - utterly to wrongfoot the viewer...

JamieR

3 years ago
Anton - did you hear Mark Kermode on Radio Five Live claiming that Boyd Hilton had found out the type of camera used by Hernández and phoned the manufacturers to ask what the maximum possible length of shot was. Apparently it was shorter than the film (minus coda).

Anyway, whilst the answer is intruiging as trivia, ultimately it makes no difference to the final product whether it really was one take or just appeared to be so. If anything, if it really was then the filmmakers have caused themselves a lot of unneccessary bother.

Mattg

3 years ago
The plot thickens. Anton, I hope you are right. Jamie, I suspect you are. If it really is one shot then it's completely mental (20% of the film is pitch black) but admirably so

JamieR

3 years ago
Interesting, Anton! Re: Fitzcarraldo, I would offer a slightly different interpretation: that Herzog dragged the boat over the mountain because he had the final product in mind, rather than the 'legend' of his making it. He didn't think he'd be able to create sufficient illusion with special effects to achieve what he wanted, and was so keen for cinemagoers to genuinely believe in the fiction of his story that he made it into reality. At least that's what he tells us in interviews. Cont...

JamieR

3 years ago
...In the case of Silent House, the existence (or otherwise) of seamless cuts during the pitch black bits is not nearly so crucial. Sufficient illusion can be created - we literally can't tell the difference when watching - so there's nothing at stake other than the story of making it. Ask someone like Barthes (‘Death of the Author’) and he’ll tell you that that’s of no consequence at all; dwelling on the circumstances of the creation of a text, or the intention of the creator, will only limit your interpretation.

You might disagree with Barthes, of course. And you may well be right re: camera hard drive add-ons - just reporting what I'd heard (and am equally technically ignorant!).

Anton Bitel

3 years ago
Hi Jamie
I'm not really disagreeing with you, but it seems odd to base one argument on the extratextual authority of Herzog, and then to base the next argument on a Barthes thesis that precisely invalidates appeals to such authority.
Of course 'there's nothing at stake other than the story of making it' - but to me at least, that's actually something rather than nothing. Just as knowing that actor X did all her own stunts, or that actor Y really did starve himself near to death for a role, or that director Q hypnotised his entire cast before filming (that's Herzog again), adds something to a film's impact. To me, knowing that The Silent House really is - or is not - shot in a single take affects my response to the film, even if only to add a certain frisson. It is not necessarily a worse film if the single take is faked - but it is a different film.

JamieR

3 years ago
Ha! Yes... I suppose, in my defence, I'm not using Herzog's words strictly to interpret his film (which would indeed elicit a withering look from Barthes) but to answer our wider question of whether the filmmaking process in and of itself carries any more than trivial interest. Whether it's worthwhile doing a one-shot film if it makes no discernale difference to the final work. You're right though, we're splitting hairs :)

Mattg

3 years ago
Though not, thankfully, about Splitting Heirs
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