A young woman, Laura, and her father prepare to spend a few days in a rundown house, to fix it up for a friend. What begins as a cosy little weekend project quickly turns deadly, when they realize that someone or something is hiding in the house. When her father is brutally attacked Laura must gather all her mental strength to survive until dawn...
Such is the simple setup behind the horror movie The Silent House aka La casa muda (2010), a film notable because of a specific thing: It was filmed in one single uninterrupted shot. Allegedly anyway, but we'll get back to that.
Once I wrote a spec script for a film that was going to take place in real time, a story that could have been done as a One-Shot movie. The first thing you realize, if you have ever attempted something similar, is how many boring and insignificant things you do on a regular day, even a busy, jam-packed day. Something as simple as transportation, from one place to another, will regularly kill any kind of momentum in such a story, because in a One-Shot or real time movie, you're not allowed to skip anything. That's a real challenge, and one that The Silent House is struggling to overcome.
If Laura hears a strange sound and decides to investigate we have to follow her all the way through the entire house. From one room, up the stairs, and into another room. Is she going to move fast and race towards her goal? No, of course not... She's going to move as slowly and quietly as possible, and because the camera is forced to document her every move faithfully, the movie grinds to a halt. Unfortunately ninety percent of the film consists of scene where Laura hears a strange sound and investigates the origin. I might have been able to forgive this, had the film presented a single original horror movie concept. It doesn't. It's a very traditional horror story. Pretty much everything you think is going to happen, will happen. All the tired horror cliches are present and accounted for.
Problem: There's a killer (or whatever) in the house. Solution: Laura just has to leave. Unbelievable additional complication: Suddenly Laura can't get out of the house! Really? Keep in mind this is a completely ordinary house, with ordinary doors. The windows are boarded up, sure, but it should be relatively simple to get out, if you really wanted to. Also, don't get me started on those 8 million times, when Laura is threatened by something and she moves TOWARDS it, rather than simply hide and wait for dawn.
Okay, I admit it, the film does work every now and then. There are some creepy moments, but they never last very long, because we always end up in another one of those boring "search"-scenes.
Unfortunately I can't really get into the worst part of this movie, the ending, because I don't want to spoil anything, but the wheels really come off in the last 20 minutes. It's one of those endings that just ruins the film as a whole, even the few moments I actually enjoyed earlier.
From a technical perspective I find The Silent House interesting, and I appreciate the effort, but the whole One-Shot concept is just a gimmick. In the end it wasn't enough to distract me from the fact that the story doesn't hold up and that the film is only moderately entertaining.
THE ART OF THE ONE-SHOT MOVIE
The One-Shot movie, or even sometimes the One-Shot sequence, is often merely a stunt. When it's done right it can give a wonderful sense of authenticity to a film or scene (take for example the uninterrupted sequences in Children of Men), but often it distracts more than it helps.
Before the advent of video cameras and digital recording any one-shot movie had to be faked. You simply can't fit 90 minutes of raw film into a camera, so you would shoot the film in 10 minute long clips and hide the cuts from the viewers. One of the early examples was Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), although, strictly speaking it's not a true One-Shot movie.
The film is comprised of 10 shots, and only every other cut is actually hidden, so the film appears to be made up of 5 shots, each running somewhere between 20 and 10 minutes. Since the film only takes place during a dinner party in an apartment, Hitchcock pretty much gets away with it, but there's no denying that the technique can be very a restrictive experience for an inventive filmmaker.
A better use of this technique can be found in the movie Running Time (1997), starring Bruce Campbell. The film deals with a recently paroled man, who joins a heist literally seconds after he steps out of prison. It runs for 70 minutes, and although it appears to take place in one single shot, the film actually has 30 cuts. Admittedly some of these can be spotted rather easily, but most of them are fairly invisible.
This brings us to the true One-Shot movies.
When video cameras and digital recording arrived filmmakers were no longer limited by how much film could physically fit into the camera. That meant that you could, in theory, shoot an entire movie in one long uninterrupted shot. A number of films have played around with this but the most impressive is the Russian art film Russian Ark (2002).
The story is an almost wordless journey through 300 years of Russian history. The location is the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. The film consists of one single 96 minute long SteadyCam shot. Thousands of actors, live orchestras, and a giant ballroom sequence. It'll take your breath away, I promise. The behind the scenes story is almost more impressive than the final result.
Another equally mind-boggling experiment, albeit with a slightly less impressive result, was conducted on Danish TV. Four directors collaborated on the movie D-Day (2000), which was shot on New Year's Eve, December 31st, 1999, and transmitted the next day. Each story was presented as a single uninterrupted 70 minute shot, and seeing as the movie took place in the middle of the Copenhagen New Year celebration, there was only one chance to get this right.
Four different channels carried each of the four stories. Another channel showed the feed to the control room, where the four directors were working, yet another channel showed all four stories in a 4-way spilt-screen, and finally a channel showed a live edited version of the film. The idea was that the viewers could navigate through these seven options and cut their own movie. The stories weren't that good, but the experiment was very interesting.
I should also point out that Mike Figgis did a One-Shot movie called Timecode (2000), but I can't go into details, since I haven't seen it.
I did see the Colombian thriller PVC-1 (2007) - another interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at doing a One-Shot movie. Based on a true story, the movie deals with a blackmail incident, where a family was attacked and the mother was fitted with an explosive collar, set to go off a few hours later, unless the family managed to pay the ransom of 15 million pesos.
Much like in The Silent House, the primary problem is boredom, due to several long sequences where nothing happens. In this case there's a 10 minute (or so) transportation sequence, where the characters travel from one place to another to get help. PVC-1 just can't get out of the problems inherent in the One-Shot concept, but it's still worth seeing, because it's unquestionable that the film was really shot in one continues take.
This brings us back around to The Silent House, and the controversy regarding it's One-Shot status. Several people online point out the "impossibility" of the concept and claim that's the only proof needed to determine that the film is faked. As demonstrated by this post that argument is hardly worth discussing, and if you're still in doubt, watch Russian Ark, and then get back to me. However, the complaint is still valid.
There's no question that most of The Silent House was shot in very long takes, but there are several moments in the film, where a quick pan of the camera could potentially hide a cut, or when the all the lights suddenly go out and leave us in total darkness - a good place to hide a cut or a reset. The director, Gustavo Hernández, maintains that the film was shot in a single shot, as does all the press material, but since the film isn't really that effective, it's not difficult to imagine that the film makers would hold on to that selling point.
The Silent House could definitely have been shot in a single shot, but after seeing the film I have this lingering doubt I just can't shake. I'm not really sure what it would take to convince me...
The One-Shot movie is a nice idea on paper, but it rarely works in real life. It's definitely a case of style over substance, and truthfully it's never as effective as the film makers think.
If directors need to flex their style-muscles, I much prefer they simply go for the One-Shot sequence, which can be used quite effectively. There are some truly magnificent One-Shot sequences throughout film history... but we'll save those for another blog.
CUT. PRINT. MOVE ON.