Given its success overseas, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Hollywood popped out a remake of La Casa Muda (2010), also known as The Silent House. The Uruguayan original will go down in history as the first thriller to allegedly be shot in one continuous take. I use the word “thriller” because dramas like Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000) have already tackled feature-length takes, with four different cameras sharing a split screen no less, and I use the word “allegedly” because there are clear points where director Gustavo Hernández might have cheated, which, for my money, only confirms his creativity.
Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau make no such claim about their remake Silent House, which maintains the illusion of a single shot but uses as its selling point “terror in real time”. Fair enough: any moviegoer impressed by camera movements and set logistics would likely know that the filmmakers are adapting a foreign hit and that the source material therefore beat them to the punch. I find it odd then that the camera feels so obtrusive in this American version, coming off like a character in and of itself. Haven’t we had enough “found footage” rehashes?
I suspect the problem lies in cinematographer Igor Martinovic standing inches away from his subjects, suffocating the audience with relentless close-ups. I understand the technical advantages of this: the tight frame allows the crew to move around without getting in the shot. Creatively, though, the approach limits his options for composition and turns every rapid movement into a blurry mess. As a result, the narrative alternates between visually repetitive and slightly nauseating.
However, my main issue with all the close-ups is that it forces Elizabeth Olsen to sustain the protagonist, Sarah, in every facial muscle for the entire runtime. This strikes me as an impossible task, given the camera never strays from her, focusing on either what she’s doing or what she’s seeing (sometimes it lingers on her cleavage too). Yes, stage actors must stay in character for extended periods, but they do it from a distance. With her every expression magnified on the silver screen, it’s hard not to notice the young actress pull back a smile once in a while or give the directors a quick glance for approval.
I can already imagine snarky bloggers making fun of Olsen’s “sleepy eyes”, not realising that having a camera lens against the nose leaves one with a single option in terms of eye-line: looking down a lot. The truth is I might have had a few sleepy-eyed moments of my own if it weren’t for her charismatic performance. Unlike her relatives on Full House, the girl can convey a wide range of emotions (okay, most of them have to do with fear) and, what with the rest of the cast disappearing twenty minutes in, carry over two thirds of the movie on her lonesome.
If it seems like I’m fussing over technical details, that’s because Silent House follows the same non-story as the original: a teen returns with her father (Adam Trese) to an abandoned summerhouse where scary things happen until the big twist ending. In fairness, Lau does fix some of the major kinks in the Uruguayan screenplay, playing up the irony and even the humour in some of the more convoluted plot developments. Consider the bit when the heroine escapes the house only to be forced back in by her would-be rescuer. It plays a lot better here because Sarah comes off as a victim of circumstances instead of an idiot.
The new conclusion, on the other hand, feels like a studio head rewrote it and made the characters more sympathetic at the cost of their believability. It’s too bad because Silent House works best when doused in ambiguity. For example, I love its surrealistic climax, when the filmmakers divorce themselves from the source material completely and all hell breaks loose. Hey, when the most a movie can strive for is being the first knock-off, you acknowledge whatever creativity you can.