The Silent House (La Casa Muda) is an unrepentant gimmick film. It almost has to be, because it’d be a hard sell without it. That’s not to say that its a film undeserving of your attention — it’s a fascinating story — but it needs a hook to grab audience interest. That hook is a blessing and a curse, but ultimately the film ends up being a surprisingly satisfying little slice of horror.
The Uruguayan film, directed by Gustavo Hernández, is supposedly a single, continuous 80 minute take, and that’s of course the hook. The story concerns a young woman, Laura (Florencia Colucci), who is working with her father on restoring an old, dilapidated farmhouse. The film picks up as Laura walks onto the property, and from there Colucci is the singular focus of the entire film — she is essentially in every frame. Once in the house, Laura begins hearing strange, ominous sounds and finding unusual, and eerily familiar items. Soon it becomes clear that there is some other force at work, and blood gets shed, bodies appear, and the haunt is on. Laura discovers that she’s locked in, and in searching the house for both clues and an escape, begins to descend into a lurid, frightening spiral of madness.
It’s an interesting exercise, the single take concept. It’s alleged to have been done before in films like The Russian Ark and the Colombian film PVC-1, although each time a film like it is released, there are more than a handful of skeptics. As for The Silent House, that skepticism may well be founded, though there’s no way of knowing. The cinematography is virtually seamless, although there are a couple of scenes that are engulfed by utter darkness, so I suppose it’s possible that Hernández may have cheated a bit. Regardless, that doesn’t detract from the film overall.
If anything, the continuous shot aspects of it have unusual and divergent effects on The Silent House. On the one hand, it’s a tense, claustrophobic little thriller, and by having the camera so tightly focused on the character, it becomes a brutally effective way of conveying atmosphere and mood. Much of the film is deeply unsettling, because it enables the viewer to become immersed in Laura’s experience, almost as if you’re feeling it firsthand. It’s aided by excellent aural effects and creepy audio, not to mention a sparse, unnerving soundtrack that consists of groaning string instruments and scattered, discordant piano strains. All of these are ingredients for an excellent, low-budget, high-concept horror film.
The problem is, for much of the film, there simply isn’t much going on. Films like The Silent House would be a commercial nightmare in the U.S., as it’s slow pace and drawn-out tension would be an audience killer. In truth, it wouldn’t quite be the fault of a short-attention span audience. For a little too much of the film, simply nothing happens. Laura finds a new room, pokes around, and then there’s a creepy sound and she cries out and either runs or hide. It’s effective the first time, repetitive the second, and kind of dull the third. There seems to be little significance to some of the scenes, and despite the solid, steady camerawork and sound effects (not to mention a gripping performance by Colucci), it ends up pulling the viewer out of the film.
The catch is that every moment is actually rather critical, but it takes a while to figure that out. It’s a film that should actually be watched a couple of times to fully understand the experience, and once the reveal is brought to light, all of a sudden you realize what a intense and riveting story it truly is.
What does that mean? It means that The Silent House is a very good, though not great film. It’s an interesting experience, a nervous, confusing, and at times genuinely scary endeavor. Once the meat of the story comes to the forefront, it begins to touch upon some absolutely awful, horrible themes. There’s no gratuitous gore or torture — it’s the rare film that conveys its scares and its message through much more simplistic and affecting storytelling techniques. But it’s a film that requires great patience, and if you can suffer through the little hiccups and lags, it ends up being a thoughtful, disturbing and inventive little picture that’s worth the wait.