The Silent House (Gustavo Hernández, 2010) – DVD & Blu-ray review
Cinema’s latest attempt to save money on an editing suite is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 1st August. For a more traditional viewing experience, try blinking occasionally while you watch.
The Silent House
(Gustavo Hernández , Uru, 2010)
An ambitious single-take horror that’s more interesting as academic exercise than scare story. Horror needs the wounding precision of the cut.
The power of a movie, arguably, resides in the director’s ability to shift viewpoint via editing. Yes, in the early days of cinema, simply showing stuff was enough, but moviegoers got tired pretty quickly of seeing only – for want of a better word – footage. So filmmakers cannily began to splice shots together to form narrative, and a medium was invented.
Yet the greatest directors were intent on holding the image for as long as possible, finding the magic in a single shot unfolding in real time, its meaning and emotion achieved through motion and time. The best early cinema had to offer – Chaplin, Renoir, Welles – worked from a hunch that editing should be kept to a minimum, and great critical thinkers (notably Andre Bazin) philosophised about the long take. Some directors even tried to shoot a film in a single shot, although Alfred Hitchock in Rope, or Robert Montgomery in The Lady in the Lake, had to cheat to achieve the effect by periodically plunging the camera into darkness – the intention not merely to hide the cut, but to ensure a seamless reel change in cinemas.
It wasn’t until the digital age that a truly single take could be achieved, via lightweight digital cameras and projection. And when it arrived, with Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, many wondered if it was worth the wait. His film was a self-consciously formal experiment, wandering around a St Petersburg museum while its past miraculously came to life. It was a breathtaking logistical exercise, and strangely hypnotic, like a séance – but also impatient with its own limitations. Put it this way, Sokurov throwing random shit in the way of his camera isn’t a million miles away from the plot of Night at the Museum.
Which brings us to The Silent House, a film that tries to use the same technique in the horror genre. It’s an obvious ploy – the long take stretches suspense, as Hitchcock well knew – but what’s remarkable here is that Uruguayan director Gustavo Hernández has settled on much the same set-up as Russian Ark: a single building filled with mysterious apparations. Only this time, they’re not so benign.
“Aside from a couple of effective jumps, the cleverness of the real-time filming in The Silent House insulates against real terror…”
As Hernández’s camera follows Laura (Florencia Colucci), a young woman returning to the titular ‘silent house’ to renovate it, what’s apparent is how much cinema self-edits. Whether she’s passing through a door from one room to another, or simply stepping from the shadows to the light, the act of movement itself divides the frame into new shots. And Hernandez ambitiously fills the titular house with endless reflections and partitions: mirrors, plastic sheeting, furniture, all used to split the composition or the texture of the shot.
If you’re getting the sense that The Silent House isn’t a typical horror movie, be assured: there’s a fair share of blood, screams and things that go bump in the night. But aside from a couple of effective jumps in the virtuoso dialogue-free mid-section, the cleverness of the real-time filming insulates against real terror. The fact that our perspective is hemmed in by the single viewpoint sustains suspense only for so long; indeed, hardcore genre fans might not even make it to the good bits such is the laborious, tension-free opening act. The film’s most memorable scene involves Laura wildly taking Polaroid shots to illuminate the pitch darkness, and it’s memorable chiefly because it’s the scene that can most obviously be faked in the edit suite.
The Silent House remains fascinating from an academic standpoint, because it reveals the flawed logic behind single-take movies. Rather than instilling greater realism, the showy-offy technique instead draws attention to the artifice. You’re constantly aware of the cameraman tripping around after her, looking for mistakes, wondering how many takes it took to capture a workable movie. But it goes deeper than that. The forward momentum of movies uses the con job of editing to progress the story. Remove that capacity, and the film becomes prone to idle reflection. Rather than wondering what will happen next, we’re reminded of how we got here. The biggest telltale is that when Hernández reveals the pay-off to its story, it revolves – like Sokurov’s museum – around the past.