The title of Gustavo Hernández’s effective little spook fest is particularly apt as, for large parts of its running time, it features one very quiet house indeed. Horror films can be noisy affairs what with all that shouting, screaming, and the sound of the dry heaves, so it’s an unusual experience to sit and watch one where the majority of the dialogue is delivered in the opening ten minutes and where about two thirds of the film features very little in the way of any dialogue at all.
With The Silent House, so much has been made of the technical achievement involved in supposedly filming its entire eighty-six minutes in one continuous take that its use of sound (or lack of it) has largely been overlooked. However, much of the success of this film and what it achieves is as much to do with what you hear as what you see and how you see it.
The story is a simple one. Laura (Florencia Colucci) and her father (Gustavo Alonso) are due to carry out some renovations on a cottage owned by Néstor (Abel Tripaldi) prior to him selling it. Being conscientious sorts, they decide to spend the night there before starting work early the next day.
Unfortunately, It isn’t long before Laura is hearing some alarming noises emanating from upstairs, and when her father goes to investigate, she hears his startled cries and is very soon reduced to a shrieking, blubbering mess, desperate to escape from whoever (or whatever) attacked her father and left him for dead.
As events unfold in real time, director Hernández follows Laura with a hand held camera that never lets her out of its sight (apart from when it goes dark, obviously), meaning that we see what she sees and hear what she hears. Sometimes we’re right beside her, at others the camera withdraws and hides behind a piece of furniture peeking out at her. In this way we move back and forth between a sometimes intense identification with her terror, to a voyeuristic sense of observing the trauma she endures, as we watch from what feels like a safe distance.
This stylistic approach proves to be more than just an interesting technical exercise, as it also pays dividends in building an atmosphere of suspense and dread. The shifting sense of perspective, combined with the protracted sequences of utter quiet, creates an incredibly unnerving atmosphere; the thick and leaden silence broken only by the creak of a door hinge or the groan of an upstairs floorboard. This sort of thing is done so well that you can feel the oppression of the situation building by the second, and it is no surprise that Laura is almost as unnerved by things not happening as she is when they are.
Admittedly, much of the action consists of Laura creeping around in the dark being occasionally driven to new heights of fear as a result of a sudden noise, or something she thinks she sees out of the corner of her eye. However, the single-take technique establishes such a fine mood of suspense that a vase being knocked over down the other end of a corridor delivers scares more effectively than many yah-boo slashers.
Most horror movie fans will, at the very least, be subconsciously familiar with the sorts of filmmaking conventions used in editing to achieve shocks within the genre. When such conventions are removed, it can be a disorienting experience, making it less easy to predict when the scares will come, and therefore not affording you the momentary breather you’re occasionally grateful for. The cumulative effect in The Silent House is that the movie becomes a more tense experience throughout, with little respite from the feeling that something is going to happen any second.
At its best, it produces some very chilling moments, none more so than when Laura has to rely on a camera flash for illumination and is therefore only able to glimpse the room she’s in in single frozen moments, her surroundings seeming to subtlety suggest something new each time the flash goes off. What she sees on one occasion was enough for me to let out a shamefully girly shriek of surprise, an unfortunate occurrence that meant I was glad I was watching it on my own.
Although it does a fine job of drawing you in throughout its first sixty minutes, unfortunately, much of this good work is, if not undone, then undermined by a conclusion that doesn’t really deliver in terms of a satisfying resolution. Too much of what has gone before doesn’t make sense in retrospect, and one development in particular suggests that Oscar Estévez’s screenplay may be trying to be a little too clever for its own good in offering an explanation for everything that has occurred up to that point.
It’s a shame, because, it’s at that point the film becomes something conventional once more, and is far too reminiscent of one or two other horror plot developments seen in recent years.
But overall, this is a significant and rewarding film that rewards close attention for anyone willing to abandon themselves to its brilliantly sustained mood of menace and dread. Remarkably, it was shot on a photo camera (a Canon Mark II 5D), and acts as quite an advert for the HD capabilities of this comparatively affordable piece of kit. Also, for a film that reportedly cost $6,000 to make, it really does lay down a marker for anybody with the desire to make their own film, and puts much of the mainstream output of big budget, studio horror films to shame.
Scary, tense and capable of creating wonderful moments of creeping dread, The Silent House is only let down by a final act that fails to follow through on much of the ingenuity that proceeds it. Its frequent fades to black may cause the more cynical to doubt that it was really shot in one take but either way The Silent House is an impressive technical and artistic achievement.
Just a trailer, unfortunately, as a director’s commentary at least would have been very interesting for a film made on such a shoestring and in this way.