Editing, said Stanley Kubrick, is what truly sets cinema apart. The medium borrows from other art forms — photography, music, theater — but cutting from this image to that image, imposing order on time and space, belongs to movies (and TV). So it’s not surprising that only a handful of feature-length “single-take” films — with no visible editing — have ever been made. Hitchcock’s Rope is probably the most famous example, but even there Hitch cheated, using clever camera moves to camouflage his edits. There haven’t been many such experiments since, though one of them was 2010’s La Casa Muda, a Uruguayan horror film, and another is its new American remake, Silent House.
Elizabeth Olsen is Sarah, who accompanies her dad (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) to their dilapidated lake house. It needs a lot of fixing up; the power’s shut off, the phones are out, and it may as well have a sign on the front lawn reading “Ideal Setting for an Inexpensive Horror Film.” The uncle gets annoyed with Sarah’s dad and takes off for a while. Sarah hears noises upstairs. Her dad goes to investigate; something happens to him. There appears to be someone in the house stalking Sarah. The movie is shot using only available light, too, so half the time we sit in the dark listening to Sarah’s tortured breathing and crying.
This is the third collaboration of husband-and-wife writer-director team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who divided horror fans in 2004 with Open Water. Many considered that minimalist shark-fest dull and repetitive, but I admired its sense of futility in the face of uncaring nature. Silent House isn’t nearly as absorbing. The underlit milieu occasionally produces unsettling, suggestive imagery, but the technique took me out of the movie — I was always looking for “invisible edits,” the points at which the camera pans across something dark, giving the filmmakers a chance to cut. We’re meant to be stuck right there with Sarah in her uncomprehending terror, but it just feels like a gimmick; in practice, it might as well be yet another found-footage movie.
It all leads up to an absurd twist ending that, like the one in High Tension, raises many inconvenient questions. The horror seems to shift from physical to supernatural, and then to psychological. Maybe it played better when they did it in Uruguay, but the plot contortions feel like a cheat. Without spoiling things, let’s say that Elizabeth Olsen, a good actress who sustains Sarah’s panic, is not quite physically plausible as having done the things we’re to assume Sarah has done. Silent House tries to go a long way — “88 minutes of real fear captured in real time,” claim the ads — on mood and suggestion, which is noble, I guess, but I wish it worked. And, again, the film is the new Exhibit A to prove why there aren’t many single-take films. Editing, as Kubrick knew, can do anything; it can evoke joy, sorrow, fear. Hitchcock pulled his experiment off (though people forget Rope did have one visible cut for effect), and then never did it again. It’s ironic, since I usually berate filmmakers for being too edit-happy, but purposely doing without the tool that makes cinema cinema calls attention to itself more than the most rapid-fire cutting does.