Found-footage filmmaking has been all the rage in horror films for the past few years with the Paranormal Activity franchise and its innumerable variants making enthusiastic use of the cheap but effective vérité technique for conjuring scares. Silent House the new (well somewhat new) thriller from the husband-and-wife directing team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau may not technically be found-footage but its hand-held “captured in real time” approach achieves essentially the same effect minus the idiotic faux disclaimers attesting to its "authenticity."
Presented as a single 88-minute take without any visible editing (think Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope) Silent House stars Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) as Sarah a somewhat aloof young girl staying with her father (Adam Trese) as he and his brother (Eric Sheffer Stevens) renovate their family’s waterfront vacation home in preparation for its sale. After years of neglect the house has fallen into disrepair lacking electricity phone lines or much of anything else that might possibly aid a girl in surviving a home invasion the potential for which is made abundantly clear in the film’s opening act.
And just who might wish to pay Sarah an unwelcome visit? Silent House’s script written by Lau offers any number of likely suspects from the vandals who’ve repeatedly trashed the vacation home to the unsavory ex-boyfriend who’s recently resurfaced in Sarah’s life. And that supposed “childhood friend” who paid her an ominous visit can’t possibly have good intentions. Oh and let’s not forget the simmering feud between Sarah’s father and uncle the fallout from which is bound to turn one of them homicidal. Perhaps they’ll all join forces and form some kind of supergroup the Power Station of sociopaths.
Whoever they are they’re exceedingly ill-tempered as Sarah learns when she happens upon her bloodied father in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Sounds of footsteps signal that his attacker(s) is near and soon Sarah is engaged in a terrifying game of hide-and-seek scrambling about the house to evade capture.
Generous kudos must be paid to cameraman Igor Martinovic who works in lock-step with Olsen in Silent House trailing close behind as she darts up and down the stairs peering over her shoulder as she gingerly opens a door and training on her face as she grimaces in silent terror trying to contain her panic as her unseen tormentor approaches. There are times however when Silent House could use a steadier hand. During some of the film’s more frantic moments the action becomes so hopelessly frenzied as to turn cinema vérité into cinema vomité.
Silent House’s "captured in real time" gimmick is exceedingly well-executed with hidden cuts spread pretty much seamlessly throughout the film. (Of course the fact that I spent a good deal of time scanning for said hidden cuts testifies to its potential to become a distraction.) Lau and Kentis establish a steady build-and-release rhythm with the tension while dropping in subtle clues here and there as to the motives behind the mayhem.
The success or failure of Silent House ultimately hinges on the efforts of Olsen who quite impressively shoulders the burden of inhabiting nearly every frame of the film. Olsen is significantly more nuanced than your typical scream-queen and it’s her performance alone that holds the film aloft during its more ludicrous moments.
Good as she is Olsen can’t hope to rescue the film’s poorly conceived third act. Over a year removed from its 2011 Sundance debut Silent House saw its ending thoroughly rejiggered in preparation for its theatrical release with the final 15 minutes replaced entirely. In its existing iteration the film abruptly takes leave of its senses during the climax with a flurry of preposterous twists and revelations that are only frightening in their abject inanity.
Click here to hear Elizabeth Olsen talk about Silent House's arduous shooting process in our exclusive interview.
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Back in the 1980s when bad-hair rockers ruled so did Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) a champion wrestler who finds himself at the end of the line. Too many steroids and too much partying have taken their toll on the middle-aged wrestler whose health is failing faster than his self-esteem. In his own way Randy’s just trying to salvage what’s left of his life. Trouble is he doesn’t know how and after retiring from wrestling he discovers that the ring is the only place he’s ever found a modicum of dignity and self-satisfaction and undertakes a comeback that is perhaps unwise but nevertheless inevitable. It’s all he knows. In a performance bound to be much talked-about during awards season Mickey Rourke brings distinct echoes of his own persona and career to the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Yet to be fair to screenwriter Robert D Siegel it’s also a strong and nuanced piece of writing. Character studies are few and far-between these days in Hollywood. This picture not only qualifies but qualifies as something on the level of a 21st-century Requiem for a Heavyweight. The film is unquestionably a showcase for its leading man but there’s exceptional supporting work. Marisa Tomei (who’s made something of a comeback for herself lately considering her work here and in last year’s Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) plays a stripper not quite of the golden-heart variety but close who takes a shine to Randy and Evan Rachel Wood as Randy’s long-estranged and long-embittered daughter. Additional flavor is added by the appearances of many real-life pro wrestlers in the background. But there’s no question to whom this movie belongs to and Rourke’s performance is indeed among the very best and perhaps the single most appealing of his screen work to date. Since his auspicious feature debut Pi a full decade ago Darren Aronofsky has made two subsequent feature films -- the powerhouse adaptation of Requiem for a Dream and the epic fantasy romance The Fountain which polarized audiences; he’s made every one count. In some ways this is his most accessible and human film but it’s in no way a traditional crowd-pleaser. It’s gutsy and gutty yet heartfelt. It’s also unlike Aronofsky has ever done before although there are a few thematic echoes to his earlier work (particularly The Fountain in terms of the principal character’s musings about loss) and again helps to stake his claim as one of today’s most daring young filmmakers -- unwilling to coast on previous success and instead intent on treading new ground each time out.
With his Oscar nominated documentary attacking the fast food industry Super Size Me filmmaker Morgan Spurlock--who ate McDonalds hamburgers non-stop for a month--found the perfect subject matter in which to insert his everyman persona. He repeated the formula every week on his cable series 30 Days and has now returned to the big screen to try it again this time as an American citizen travelling to the Middle East to do what the Government can’t: find Osama Bin Laden. Unfortunately using the war on terror as a vehicle for comedy is at best uneven and at worst tasteless. Spurlock leaves his very pregnant wife at home as he travels to Jordan Egypt Israel Afghanistan Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on a mission to find the famed 9/11 mastermind and make the world a better place for his soon-to-be-born baby. Before he hits the road we watch him mug for the cameras as he gets shots and trains to fight terrorists ‘Rambo-style’. Oy. The bulk of the film finds him alternately asking average joes on the streets if they have seen Osama in the neighborhood lately and worrying about getting back in time for his kid’s birth. As his journey proceeds he gets progressively more serious and philosophical a turn that doesn’t jive with the film’s more whimsical earlier portions. As this is technically a documentary acting doesn’t apply except Spurlock really is playing a character he honed in Super Size Me and his series the everyday guy who inserts himself into unfamiliar places and lifestyles in order to make a point. He’s Michael Moore-light literally and figuratively--an approach that has proven to be amusing in the past but here just feels wrong. His goal apparently is to show that people are really all just the same around the world--same concerns same fears and what really matters in the end is making it a safe place for your own family. Nice thoughts Morgan but it doesn’t really work this time around. Spurlock stars co-writes and directs using a tiresome framing device of a video game that helps us figure out which countries he is in at any given time. As director his main goal seems to be keeping the camera on himself pretending that Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is about anything other than Morgan Spurlock goes Middle Eastern. There are some memorable human encounters along the way specifically a local who wants to turn the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan--once thought to be the hiding place of Bin Laden--into an amusement park celebrating that fact. Low point is an uncomfortable sequence focusing on Israeli extremists trying to kick Spurlock out of their occupied territory letting him play the victim without shedding any light on why they react with such hatred towards Westerners. As with so much of his film you’re just left scratching your head and moving on to the next segment of a film that might better be titled What in the World Was Morgan Spurlock Thinking?