Silent House And The Rise Of The Gimmicky Horror Movie

On Friday, the horror movie Silent House comes out. One of its selling points is that it stars Elizabeth Olsen—who was terrific last year in a very different sort of horror film, Martha Marcy May Marlene—but probably the hook that will be most intriguing to genre fans is that the whole movie takes place in real time, incorporating a handful of long takes seamlessly stitched together. (Y'know, like Rope.)

If that sounds like a gimmick, well, it sorta is. Which is why it makes sense that Silent House was made by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau. If you don't recognize their names, you probably remember the other movie they produced, Open Water. Yeah, they make gimmick horror movies. But is that such a bad thing?

Debuting at the 2003 Hamptons Film Festival before being scooped up by Lionsgate at Sundance the following year, Open Water was compared a lot at the time to The Blair Witch Project, which is funny to think about now since they don't really have that much in common. Yeah, they're both horror movies, and, yes, they both used little-known actors and shot on miniscule budgets. But in terms of what makes each movie work, it's like night and day. Blair Witch helped inspire the modern-day found-footage phenomenon. By comparison, Open Water was clearly meant to be fictional, although there was a heightened reality to it because the filmmakers put the movie's upwardly mobile couple (played by Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) in waters that were filled with actual sharks. (If that wasn't enough, those sharks were being lured toward the actors by crew members who were dumping bloody bits of tuna into the water around them.)

Open Water was written, directed and edited by Kentis and was produced by Lau. (They shot the film together as well.) They're not just filmmaking partners, though: They're married. They had made one movie before Open Water—a film noir called Grind that starred Billy Crudup and Adrienne Shelly—and apparently the experience was horrifying for Kentis and Lau, as they later told The New York Times's Deborah Sontag:

It was, they say, a learning experience during which Ms. Lau studied filmmaking manuals to figure out what to do next. They were ''scared to death'' of the experienced crew, Ms. Lau said, which led the filmmakers to posture on the set and try too hard to make ''something that looked like a real movie.''

Since then, Kentis and Lau have worked very hard to make movies that don't look like "real" movies, for better or worse. Despite the generally good reviews Open Water received, it's the type of film that very easily annoys a lot of people who can't see beyond the gimmick. (The fact that it was based on a true story didn't impress the movie's detractors, who thought the filmmakers were just capitalizing on real-life tragedy for their story.)

But while "gimmick" definitely has a negative connotation, Open Water was one of those movies that I felt transcended its conceptual hook to actually be about something. Specifically, the film became an unexpectedly affecting look at relationships and mortality as we watched this yuppie couple reconnect with one another during an absolutely terrifying ordeal. Although one critic called the movie "about as much fun as watching someone pull the wings off a butterfly"—and he actually liked the film—I found Open Water's slow march toward death to be weirdly moving and believably portrayed by Ryan and Travis. Ultimately, the "look, ma, real sharks" conceit wasn't that interesting—we know that the actors weren't eaten—but those unrelenting shots of the vast ocean around the characters started to take on a terrifying emptiness that worked perfectly with the story's sense of creeping dread.

It was perhaps inevitable that Open Water would end up feeling like a one-hit-wonder for Kentis and Lau—especially after the pair went conspicuously fallow. In the decade that followed Open Water, horror flicks armed with gimmicks took over theaters, from the Rube Goldberg torture porn of the Saw movies to the revival of the found-footage genre with the Paranormal Activity series. It wasn't as if Kentis and Lau invented the idea of the high-concept horror movie, but in the time since Open Water it's become very important for successful horror franchises to have a unique narrative or formal hook to keep us interested.

Which brings us back to Silent House and its real-time gimmick. To be fair, that's not Kentis and Lau's gimmick—it came from the original Uruguayan film, La Casa Muda—but in a recent interview Kentis explained that, really, they're more interested in reality than tricks:

[T]hese particular stories that we were attracted to, they really are about human horror and some very real horrors and very real things. It seemed that to make those things as real and palpable as possible was the most effective way to tell that story.

Folks who hated Open Water will roll their eyes at such comments, but Silent House once again shows that these filmmakers do have an ability for eliciting strong, utterly natural performances. In Silent House, Olsen plays Sarah, a young woman who finds herself tormented by a mysterious stranger while hanging out at her family's remote summer home. (How remote? Cellphones don't work, of course.) The unbroken handheld shots are fun to watch in a technical, "how did they do that?" way, but the added benefit of the gimmick is that it really shows Olsen convincingly transition from regular gal to utterly frightened lass right in front of our eyes. Her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene is far more layered and nuanced, but Silent House's physical and emotional demands allow her to show an urgency and commitment that are impressive in their own right.

So why isn't Silent House better than it is? Because unlike Open Water, Silent House really is little more than its gimmick. And while there are some nice scares here, the movie never feels like anything other than a well-executed exercise. You never get the sense that they're up to anything more profound or emotionally significant than chasing Olsen around with a camera. Even worse, when the filmmakers do go for something bigger, they resort to the cheapest, lamest of gimmicks—the twist ending—for their big surprise. In a way, Silent House serves as a reminder of what Open Water didn't do: fall into an empty cleverness that leaves you feeling cheated when you exit the theater. Maybe it's time for these two to try making a "real movie" again.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.