Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sounding Off About Silent House

Remakes are a hot button topic with horror fans. Even though remakes have been a part of the fabric of genre filmmaking for forever and a day, the announcement of another remake typically provokes a heated response. And it's not just about classic being remade - some of the most heated reactions happen when Hollywood remakes a foreign film within a year or so of the original's release. The main point of contention being that remaking a foreign film right out of the gate rather than giving the original a chance to find an audience on its own in the US sends the message that studios cater to lazy American audiences who can't be bothered to read subtitles.

For some reason, though, any fanboy outrage over remaking the 2010 Uruguayan film La Casa Muda has been minimal. Maybe because the original has not caught on as a fan favorite in the way that, say, [REC] had by the time its US remake Quarantine was put into production. It's not a badge of coolness to like Silent House so there's not much consternation over the remake.

I haven't watched the original Silent House and, honestly, having watched the remake I don't plan on making the time to do so (another complaint against remakes, by the way - they discourage viewers from discovering the original). It's not that I hated Silent House, just that I suspect that the remake didn't veer from from the source material and another trip through the same story just doesn't appeal to me.

The main hook of Silent House is that it's presented in one continuous take. Of course there are edits throughout the film but they're invisible, done in moments where the film is in black. It's a stunt that's been done before - most famously in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and genre fans might also remember the Bruce Campbell starring Running Time (1997), directed by Evil Dead alumni Josh Becker - but whenever it's done, it's always an impressive technical feat. Not just for the coordinated efforts of the behind the scenes crew but for any actor who has to stay on screen for the duration of the film.

Whatever faults might be found in Silent House (and we'll get to them momentarily), the central performance of Elizabeth Olsen as Sarah isn't one of them. Olsen recently received a heap of praise for her role in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene and while that film has been on my "to see" list for awhile, it's now rocketed to the top of my "must see" list thanks to seeing her in action in Silent House.

Olsen really gives an impressive performance here in a role that is short on dialogue but requires her to run the gamut of emotion. It's a classic Scream Queen performance in that the film resembles the Final Chase of a slasher movie with Olsen almost continually on the run from an unknown assailant stalking her and her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) within the walls of her family's old lakeside home as they prep the long neglected property for sale.

As Olsen's Sarah screams, runs, and fights for her survival, it's the same kind of scenario that horror fans have seen Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne King, Amy Steel, or any number of other Final Girls run through. Only instead of occupying the last twenty minutes of the film, Olsen really gets a workout as she has to sustain this level of terror for the majority of Silent House's eighty eight minute running time.

Some would say that the lack of build-up to Sarah's plight works against creating audience sympathy for the character. We don't really know much at all about Sarah before we're asked to root for her survival. I don't agree with that complaint myself as I think it's fairly easy to feel sympathetic towards someone under attack. I don't really need to know what their life story is to care. Getting to know more about a character is always good but the lack of backstory is not an insurmountable obstacle to audience sympathy.

Whatever level of sympathy viewers may or may not feel for Sarah, though, their feelings for the overall movie will be tested by Silent House's concluding moments as the reason for Sarah's ordeal comes to light. I won't go into details but I will say it's not going to please everybody. In fact, it'll probably be a deal breaker for most. Me, I thought it was fine. I didn't love the resolution but I didn't feel like it betrayed my investment in the film. Ultimately, Silent House is a shoulder shrug sort of film - it's not awful but I'd never revisit it and I'd only recommend it on the strength of Olsen's performance.

This is the second film from the filmmaking couple of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau who first drew acclaim for their 2003 debut Open Water. The fact that it's taken the duo nearly ten years to deliver a follow up is a discouraging reminder of just how difficult it is to get movies made - even with a success to your name. Sadly, Silent House isn't as impressive as Open Water was but neither is it a disaster. Hopefully Kentis and Lau won't have to wait nearly another decade to add another film to their resume.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Delusion Of A Disordered Mind

Call me crazy (or slow on the draw) but I noticed something new while recently rewatching Phantasm II. While Reggie and Mike are driving through a Tall Man-ravaged small town, one shot of the debris-strewn streets and boarded up store fronts suddenly jumped out at me as being not an actual location, as I always assumed it to be, but in fact a miniature set.

This detail has probably been completely obvious to everyone all along but it's taken me I don't know how many viewings for my eye to detect telltale signs of artifice in this shot.

But rather than ruin the moment, spying the fakery instead put a big smile on my face. This is the kind of unexpected discovery that the digital age has robbed us of now that moviemakers no longer have to use a variety of practical methods to pull off their illusions.

This moment amounts to just a brief few seconds of screen time and it's not any kind of pivotal scene - it's just there to give a sense of the Tall Man's path of destruction. But yet it required some craftsman on the crew (perhaps Ken Tarallo, credited as model maker in the film's credits) to spend what was likely weeks to construct a cool little miniature full of finely acheived detail which then had to be lit and photographed just right to make it convincing. Or...perhaps I'm just seeing things.

Either way, Phantasm II continues to be damn cool.