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The Silent House (2010)
Director: Gustavo Hernández
[no stars]
review by Paul Higson

Publicised as the first horror film shot in one continuous take, which it isn't (that honour going to a British horror film with the beautifully ironic title Cut, 2010), Gustavo Hernández's The Silent House (aka: La casa muda) has been mystifyingly critical approbation which can only be merited to an over allowance to the gimmick. But real-time cinema already has an impressive standing and comes with certain common sense governing principles. It is an unwritten unofficial dogma but a logical demand of a strand that pleads authenticity and therefore needs to stand by and prove that authenticity. Hernández shows a brazen disinterest for those rules. He doesn't appear interested in turning his mind to much, be it story, character, or the audience. Furthering the insult to those who have gone before with similar single-take feature films, Hernández tries to reduce the player difficulty level of his challenge with resoundingly lazy results. In order to discuss what is so disastrous about The Silent House it may provide useful guidance to introduce first another four real-time feature films which did impress.

The other four filmmakers understood what was expected of them. It is not enough to make a film in real-time but the temptation to make the exercise easy on them, which was surely a thought with each, clearly outraged them and instead they stepped up the difficulty level, throwing in additional complications, laying down the gauntlet for others, daring them to follow that. It could be that as stage productions run in real-time and often without stutter that the first imposition on the maker is to avoid making a film that feels stage-bound. Otherwise, this would qualify the average family filmed school stage production of the Little Shop Of Horrors musical as a real-time movie. So there must always be complementary difficulties.

Mike Figgis' Time Code (2000) was a mathematical exercise shot not with one camera but four following as many apart characters across a city, adding to the complexity their criss-crossing and meeting. Matias Bize's Sabado, una Pelicula en tiempo real (2002) was an hour long Chilean drama caught by a wedding photographer who suddenly finds himself without a wedding, as the bride is confronted by the groom's apparent betrayal and then sets out to get to the bottom of it. The action involves a journey by car across the city with several stops for bricking extras with a single line or two, and even dares arrest for nudity in the street.

Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002) is a beautifully shot spellbinding time-shift surreal epic set in a National Gallery overrun by ghosts and history which culminates in a truly epic ballroom scene. Alexander Williams' Cut is also exceedingly well shot with a highly interactive group of characters. Set within the relatively constrictive house and garden it does not make easy for the cast or crew as was proven with a reputed 36 takes over several days. It has a small cheat with an opening sequence with edits which throws the expectant viewer momentarily but a pan out reveals it to be a test shot for a movie being made by the characters and is still part of the single take. Russian Ark (successfully captured on the third take on the one shooting day) too closes with a special effect and adds a light drone to the soundtrack but otherwise these films are sound and vision caught in camera.

Sound here is as important as vision. The integrity of the single-take film automatically imports a consideration to keep the finished product natural and that includes limitations on post-production alteration and chicanery. The Silent House is disrespectful to the point that you wonder why they even bothered to try and do it in a single shot. There is a sense that Hernández has tried to pare down his exercise to the point of least complication. Though claiming to be based on a true story, the more overriding importance here is that it involves the fewest players so that there are fewer people to manage and so there are only three characters. Hernández has also chickened out of dialogue because it is too easy to fluff a line. Laura (Florencia Colucci) spends most of her time dithering in rooms alone, her movements slow, affectedly so, respectful only of the pursuant cameraman.

Hernández even allows the father, Wilson (Gustavo Alonso), to fall asleep in an armchair, again because while dormant he has less opportunity to blunder. The entire first half of the film is a somnambulistic exercise that some might argue is the intention, to give the film a dream like quality, setting the film somewhere other than in reality, making this a horror film for the slow cinema adherents. But this is real-time cinema and something authentic should come from it. In Cut, the banter is almost ceaseless and though some ad-libbing was allowed, what was impromptu was in character, often comical, but just as threatening to the production as any scripted line as it could break up the players or distract, or there was the danger of it slipping out of a character's range. But Cut was well cast with talent capable of the demands of that production.

The only dialogue in The Silent House is basic and may as well be grunting. The story and language are so rudimentary that the film borders on becoming an abstract horror film (an equally small subgenre the few examples of which include Terry Bourke's Night Of Fear, 1975; and the recent Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani film Amer, 2010), films which are difficult to engage in and enjoy. The problems with The Silent House do not end with the avoidances. The makers of real-time films must leave you in no doubt as to the authenticity of their efforts. Hernández instils none of that trust. At one point in the film a door shuts and the film is left in complete darkness. Who is to say that the film has not stopped and the rest is a new take? The sequence continues in complete darkness with only the occasional flash of a Polaroid camera revealing the room and at one point a ghost child and then finally an attacker. The blackness is so impenetrable that it is easier to presume the entire sequence an imported element.

The diegetic sounds also often do not ring true, and sound added on. This includes the song on the radio which never changes volume despite her movements away from it, the sounds from the room above and the whooshes in the grass to the side of the road when she first escapes the building. There is nothing to prevent a director from adding sound effects but it negates the authenticity and the purpose of the real-time take. A lack of faith in the content of his horror film, which is nil on imagination, also led to a clear post-production decision to include a horror film score which is too apparently trying to push the viewer into a more worrisome state. The British horror film Cut did not feel that a commentary musical soundtrack was necessary and though Sokurov seeped one in it was innocuous and almost purposeless. Films that were shot in long sections, like Hitchcock's Rope (1948), Herzog's Woyzeck (1979), and Haneke's Code Unknown (2000) understand the relative purity of the limited number of sequences and respect that authenticity with little or no post-production decoration.

Then Hernández goes one step further and doctors the image. One of the more interesting aspects of The Silent House was that it seemed to have been filmed at dusk, which meant there was only one possible take of an evening. But this too is now apparently a cheat, and the film's dusk was a filtered one in post-production. Not only this but other visual effects scupper any belief in the movie. Again, of interest is the way in which, at the end, the camera seems to possess and occupy the final victim but this is only to play about with the victim's vision as they falter and fade, their sight blurring, which again when it first happens the viewer considers a cleverly timed in-camera focal trick but as it continues it is apparent that the effect is post-production fiddling.

The UK DVD coming though Optimum means that this is a no frills release with no supporting information other than the trailer. It is apparently also missing a shot following the end credits, though descriptions of that shot add nothing to the film. In Artificial Eye's release of Russian Ark, and the BritFilms release of Cut on DVD, there is evidential supporting material that shows the complexity, the skill, and the frustrations of such filmmaking endeavours. We know that these films, and Time Code and Sabado, took three to 36 gruelling attempts before the accepted version. We can see Sokurov exhausted at the end of his shoot to the point of being beyond celebrating his achievement. We recognise the advanced stage of the shoot as Cut is abandoned as important lines or actions are bungled. The Silent House, with no supporting evidence, looks as if it is hiding something. I suspect that the behind-the-scenes give away something other than the process or story, that this was not a single-take movie, despite a reported four-day shoot. The fact that Hernández could not even contain such a simple premise and be dishonest in the promotion will does not sit well with any future output.

Critics bemoan horror films that they perceive to be no more than people stupidly walking interminably through old dark houses or running through woods, yet this is all The Silent House is. We are uncertain what the purpose of the stay in the building is that evening, when forbidden to go upstairs and when the clear-out immediately turns to a sleep in the armchair. Yes, we are eventually given a twist and new perspective, but there is no interest in the preceding story or characters, because there is no preceding story or character.

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian was impressed which makes me concerned about him as a film critic. He seems taken by the exercise and sold on the challenge achieved, remarks "one muffed line, one failed light, one glimpse of the camera crew in a mirror..." and it is back to square one "and do it quickly because time is money on a film set." But as single-take cinema is normally completed in a week if not a day, then time is not money, and The Silent House had a reputed budget of only 30,000 pesos. Other online reviews ask us to take the low budget and single-take into consideration when seeing it, but as it clearly cheats on the latter it does not deserve such an accommodation from the viewer. An American remake has already been completed and for once it cannot really do worse and is likely to learn from and probably show up the original.

The Silent House



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