Milestone Movies : The Silent House (2010)

Horror, in one 79 minute long take

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

Frequently, genre films have allowed directors to cut loose. Perhaps because the genre is such a well-trodden path that something new must be done to get a bit of attention. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that audiences will be able to fall into the genre tropes, which allow a bit of lee-way for a director who’s willing to take a few risks. And, throughout film history, horror films in particular have seen some great innovation (George Méliès’ 1896 short Le Manoir du Diable is regarded as the first horror film). The Uruguayan film, The Silent House (2010) is an example of a film that takes an approach that could only have been done with modern technology – but rather than simply show off, it uses its bravura stylistic approach to create the horror itself.

Historically speaking, the influence of the German Expressionism film movement has been slightly exaggerated – in part because films like Dr. Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu (1922) were so memorable in their visuals and thematic underpinnings. Yet it used imagery in a way that had been rarely seen before on film. Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is perhaps one of the most formally challenging films made (though Dreyer’s entire career could hardly be described as an ‘easy-way-out cinema’), in its complete disregard of the established rules of editing. Everything is so uncertain in the film, from the cuts that don’t match to the ambiguity of the narrative. Belatedly it has been seen as a classic of the genre.

Italian horror films – whether it was the Italian cannibal genre, which pushed gore to standards never seen in reasonably mainstream cinema, or the wonderfully stylish horror films of the likes of Bava, Argento or Fulci etc. allowed for the triumph of style over narrative. epitomised by the idea that a good set-piece is often more important than a consistent narrative.(I’m not trying to be pejorative here). Of course, this isn’t a new approach in cinema: after all, everything from the action film to the comedy relies on a set-piece that often transcends the narrative. But it’s also hard to deny that the influence of the Italian horror films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in particular could be seen as pushing what was acceptable on screen. Many were after all, part of the infamous British video nasty moral panic.Hollywood ended up loving the genre as a way of identifying new auteurs: Stephen Spielberg, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson etc. all found fame through their early low-budget horror films: directors with a bit of flair were able to show their technical skill and also earn mega profits.

The shift to digital technology should also have seen a shift in filmmaking – much more so than has eventuated (after all, very few non-studio films ever ‘make it’ despite the apparent democratisation that digital cameras have provided to wannabe filmmakers). 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was perhaps the first digital film to make an impact : part of its marketing was the fact people just bought a digital camera and made a film for next to nothing. The fact the film tricked a lot of people into thinking it was real (it had essentially the same narrative construction as Cannibal Holocaust) perhaps led to the film being underrated. It is a remarkably effective and potent horror film, which almost entirely relies on the viewer’s imagination rather than showing anything.

Gustavo Hernández’s The Silent House uses the technological abilities created by digital films to create, at least in my mind a deeply affecting horror film. The film is ostensibly told in one take (whether that’s true or not is the matter of some debate, especially since the film credits an editor). One take films have been attempted for some time: most famously in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which used darkness and camera movement to disguise the cuts. Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark was made with one shot, but the film was largely less interested in narrative, and much more interested in thematic and aesthetic ideas. The Silent House however uses it one-shot appearance for specific narrative purposes. The film barely got shown in New Zealand: one would have thought it would have fit someone like Ant Timpson’s Incredible Cinema programme rather well (though, obviously I’m not his programmer). It is now available on DVD, and its slow build towards cult reputation will no doubt come. One imagines the American re-make that is already planned will have the effect of highlighting the original more.

The film looks at a father and daughter going to a neighbour’s house to assist in cleaning it before the neighbour sells it. In what appears to be a common trait in selling horror films, it’s marketed as being based on a true story from the 1940s; that degree of ‘realism’ being necessary in order to sell the film to those who may be a little too cynical about the events. The house is dark, lacking in electricity, and the house isn’t particularly well looked after. As expected, things start going bump in the house, and it’s not such a simple matter as the two being able to work away/relax with all the things going on in the house. The film shifts in the final third (a little unsuccessfully), but the overall mood is rather claustrophobic and full of tension.

The bulk of the tension comes from the way it has been filmed. Horror films (like most films) rely on the cut to create a sense of comfort, to release the tension, or to attempt to point a viewer towards the director’s intention. Editing plays a remarkable role in directing how someone is to view a film-yet this film denies that ‘structuring’ to an extent. With the Silent House, you sit there waiting for a cut, and waiting for the comfort that a cut is supposed to provide. The lack of point of view shots (we don’t see what Laura sees), the lack of shot-reverse shot to allow for that sneaky reveal, the inability to feel that time is passing, which is that seemingly necessary component of narrative storytelling, makes for uncomfortable and challenging viewing. It helps ramp up the tension and has the impact the enhancing the horror.

Long takes have the effect of emphasising time and space (rather than hide it), and the Silent House used the ensuing claustrophobia to heighten the sense of entrapment. Laura needs to escape both place and time for her to get away from it all. It’s the formal use of the one-shot technique, which allows the film to get past its horror film clichés and narrative contrivances, to really create the psychological horror that is much more effective than the slasher, gory films.

Whether it’s as successful as some of the great psychological horror films from recent times: particularly some of the Spanish contingent like The Orphanage, The Others or Rec is another matter. But the challenging of film conventions, perhaps in a way that only digital cinema can properly provide, elevate The Silent House from being a standard genre piece to a deeply affecting horror film.