9 May 2012

Review: Silent House

(Dir: Chris Kentis & Laura Lau, 2011)

There’s a pretty emphatic school of thought that believes foreign films should remain untouched and never be remade for the uncivilised Western audiences who can’t cope with reading whilst watching. On the one hand I sympathise with this view as more should be done to persuade people that subtitles don’t make watching a film harder or any less enjoyable, and also because remakes frequently get lost in translation. But then films like La Casa Muda (aka The Silent House) come along. This Uruguayan film from a couple of years back was an interesting horror experiment that remains pretty much unheard of due to the exceptionally limited cinema release it received (12 opening weekend screens in the UK and only £8,539 in box office from this), as well as it coming from a country not known for it’s filmic output. Yet its great concept deserves further exploration and a wider audience.

Theoretically that should come from the US remake, Silent House, that has arrived with us and is a fairly low budget independent release which allows it to stay pretty true to the roots of the original. The story is simple – Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is helping to renovate her family’s holiday home along with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eris Sheffer Stevens), but then things take a turn for the creepy when she starts hearing suspicious noises and realises they are not alone in the house. This set-up and story is generic but it’s made all the more interesting as the film is shot in real time with a single camera in what looks like one continuous take. 

It may sound like shooting in this style is a gimmick but for a horror film tied to a single location it adds a real sense of claustrophobia. The camera essentially has to follow the lead, and with some creative and fluid movement veers between observing, following and seeing what she sees. What really struck me when watching La Casa Muda in the cinema was the absolute feeling that there was no escape – there were no edits to take us somewhere safer or to see a different POV, we got exactly what she experienced, pure and uncut like real life, and further enhanced in the cinema by there being no pause or stop button to find a moment of respite. We could only stop to breathe when she could. And so basing the plot around exploring a dark house lit by only handheld lamps where someone is stalking you made this even more breathless.

La Casa Muda pulled off the concept convincingly and it was one of the scariest films I’ve seen in the cinema in the last couple of years. The remake does a good job following this approach and builds up tremendous amounts of atmosphere and tension, although I didn't find it quite as effective. Whether this all translates to home viewing where the environment is less immersive and you can pause, I don’t know. Although it wasn't all shot in one take it's constructed cleverly enough to look like it was, ensuring the impact this technique can bring. (As an aside, I very recently saw Warrior King with Tony Jaa, which has a jaw-dropping 4 minute single take fight sequence that shows how incredibly effective this technique can be when done right). Olsen does a great job as the focus of the film. She’s interesting to watch, is convincing and you’re rooting for her (us) to escape. I was less sure of her character's father and uncle as there was something about their relationships that didn’t ring true.

Although I didn’t fully expect Silent House to improve on the tension and scariness of the original, I had hoped it would improve on the conclusion and overall story. La Casa Muda suffers from some glaring illogicality as a result of trying to add explanations and a bit more story onto it’s simple structure, and although Silent House tweaks this in the right direction, it’s not enough to properly eliminate it. Some things are still not adding up right.

As remakes go I think Silent House was a worthwhile exercise. Although neither version ends up in a satisfactory place, the core is essentially a paradigm for how to build and envelop the audience in a suffocating atmosphere of which there is no extrication. The concept works, there's just no need to muddy the waters with unnecessarily convoluted story. The other benefit was getting to watch Olsen put in another very good performance, just as she did when she came to prominence in Martha, Marcy May, Marlene. But as much as I enjoyed Silent House, I think I prefer La Casa Muda. Maybe it's because I saw the original knowing nothing and thus had expectations of what the remake would/should offer? Having events take place somewhere even less familiar and almost culturally alien just adds an extra level of disorientation that amps up the fear, along with a touch more rawness to heighten reality slightly. I guess we chalk that up as another win for the original foreign language version of a film, but only just.

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