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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Based on the life of New York City police detective Vincent LaMarca City by the Sea vacillates between a true-crime mystery and a family drama. As Vincent (De Niro) investigates the murder of a Long Beach N.Y. drug dealer it becomes painfully clear that his estranged son junkie Joey (James Franco) known on the street as Joey Nova is the prime suspect. Vincent is of course taken off the case but when his partner is killed while pursuing Joey the search becomes the Long Beach police department's top priority--and saving his son from a police department eager for cop-killer blood becomes Vincent's. The fact that Vincent discovers that he has a grandson Angelo doesn't help the situation especially when Joey's supposedly clean ex-junkie girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) leaves the kid at Vincent's apartment when she goes to buy cigarettes and fails to return. Vincent who's always defined himself against his criminal father finds himself forced to decide whether he's a cop or a father and grandfather first a quandary that naturally leads to some pretty compelling if slightly melodramatic scenes for De Niro. Interestingly despite the somber subject matter and the dramatic tone the film still manages a few lighthearted moments which really save it from the pitfalls of its own seriousness.
Sometimes a great cast can make even a mediocre film good and that's what happens in City by the Sea. Even though the dialogue they're given to work with isn't always completely natural--in fact sometimes it's downright contrived--the cast still manages to create a compelling final product. You just can't go wrong with De Niro as a hardened streetwise emotionally distant cop and he makes everyone opposite him look great especially relative newcomer Franco (whose performance as a young James Dean in TNT's James Dean earned him some critical kudos of his own). The young actor swaggers onto the scene like a very young Bob Dylan a hollow-body vintage guitar slung across his back. Of course he's selling it for drugs not heading for a gig. Patti LuPone really sinks her teeth--and catty claws--into her role as LaMarca's bitter ex-wife creating some of the film's most dynamic scenes while Frances McDormand lends her subtly expressive style to the most emotional moments as De Niro's sometime girlfriend Michelle.
Director Michael Caton-Jones delves into the dark side of his imagination with images of a desolate Long Beach: graffiti-covered walls crumbling casinos and a rickety boardwalk--all the detritus of a once-thriving tourist destination. In this grim setting Joey wanders virtually empty streets and beaches where as a child he played happily; meanwhile in Manhattan Vincent is wandering his streets in much the same way. It's an interesting device Caton-Jones uses to show the similarities between the two men and it's as effective at establishing their relationship as the relatively few scenes they have together. At moments like this when the film is making its emotional impact visually it shines; unfortunately City by the Sea relies a little too often on its average dialogue and does a little too much telling and not enough showing.