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September 2011

The Silent House

cast: Florencia Colucci, Abel Tripaldi, Gustavo Alonso, and María Salazar

director: Gustavo Hernandez

86 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Optimum blu-ray region B

RATING: 7/10
review by Niall Alexander

The Silent House

Take a paltry sum of money shy of £4,000 - or the equivalent in Uruguayan pesos, add a ramshackle countryside cottage, a handful of no-name actors, and mix with a standard digital SLR camera with HD video recording capabilities - a Canon mark II 5D, if you must know. What do you get? Well, since you asked: you get an illusion; a con. A trick of the light - or of the dark, perhaps, but an accomplished one - an astonishing one, even, excepting an unfortunate foible of a finale.

As night falls, Laura and her father Wilson arrive at an old house for all intents and purposes in the middle of nowhere, which a friend of the family has hired them to make ready for a viewing a few days later. The power's out, of course - or so the owner informs them - and they realise they'll get nothing done in the pitch darkness approaching, so each of the pair picks a chair and settles in to wait out the evening. But as they're drifting off, something else is waking up... something that goes bump in the night.

Cue 60 minutes of the sort of exquisite dread, terror and tension Hollywood wishes it could conjure but with a fraction of the authenticity debutant director Gustavo Hernandez brings to the table, and at a fraction of the cost, as Laura - when she is not screaming or sobbing or sniffling - creeps quietly about the house (in truth anything but silent) in search of the whatever-it-is that seems to mean her harm.

No doubt the cost of getting the good word out there about The Silent House (aka: La casa muda) has long since eclipsed the drop in the ocean it took to actually make this humble horror movie in the first place, but I would wager the money was well-spent, because the story of its ambitious, no frills production feels an old one already, it's been told and retold so often. I'll spare you yet another repetition.

The Silent House is not, in any event, the first film which purports to have been shot in a single, continuous take; it is not even the first such film in recent memory - though it has the highest profile of any contender. Nor am I entirely convinced that it is what it says on the tin: keep an eye the blood spattered on Laura's vest and chest early on for several apparent continuity goofs which suggest it's been misrepresented.

But let's not get hung up on that. This is art, and art can be whatever it pleases, so long as it can walk the walk with as much self-assurance as it talks the talk. Thus, The Silent House is a single-shot horror film based 'on true events,' which is to say a real life cold case from the 1940s. You can wiki the particulars in your own time.

Again, however 'true' or not the plot, what matters is that The Silent House is true to itself, and it is absolutely, unremittingly, at times unforgivingly that... at least, it is until the empty revelations of the last act, whereupon there is such falseness as to cheapen a great deal of the atmosphere Hernandez has earned the hard way; the old-fashioned way, you might say. Indeed, as ultra-modern as one might be inclined to think The Silent House, what with its various vérité gimmicks and the exact manner of its making - so easily compared to that of The Blair Witch Project, and to a lesser extent Paranormal Activity - in practice as much of it springs from the classic tradition of cinema as what passes for a movie (specifically a scary movie) in this day and age.

Firstly, foremostly, The Silent House is for the larger part - but for a sprinkling of dialogue at the outset and the distressing disclosures made come the conclusion - a silent film. Given Laura's constant crying, the aforementioned something that bumps, and the paramount importance of Hernán González's pitch-perfect piano score to this picture's eventual success, that might seem a surprising assertion... but it is true, all the same. However effective the audio component of The Silent House is - and it is in the final summation very effective - these sounds are entirely ancillary to the sights (or else those things the viewer does not see) of this brilliantly staged debut: the tight, oppressive angle on Laura that leaves so much unseen, surrendering centre-stage to the viewer's imagination; or the impression of a figure, half-glimpsed in the hallway behind her. We see it... but does she?

There is only really one performance to speak of in The Silent House: that of newcomer Florencia Colucci, a pretty young thing who, though there is little room in the film for range, demonstrates tremendous composure under the circumstances, whatever they may have been. She makes almost every frame her own - and it's as well that she is for the larger part up to the task, because Colucci is the sole focus of almost every frame in a manner that recalls nothing so much as the third-person perspective favoured by video games. In short, Colucci, as Laura, has the director's undivided attention, for the duration, and the viewer's too.

Alas, The Silent House would have been a manifestly more memorable piece in totality without its ill-conceived last act, wherein Hernandez takes it upon himself to explain what should by all rights be left inexplicable. In so doing, the ambitious director overreaches at the last (but not least) hurdle, systematically it seems subverting the power of all the alarming happenings he bade us witness only moments ago, because sadly, the muddled rationale Hernandez spells out - the big reveal before the final curtain comes clattering down, ten minutes too late - goes wholly against the internal logic so deliberately, delicately established before. We are left, then, with not the intricate puzzle we had presumed, to be turned over and over in our minds after the fact - perhaps unpicked in the fullness of time, or perhaps not - but only... a trick; a cheat; an unholy hoax.

The Silent House is its own worst enemy, in the end, when the horror of not knowing would surely have proved more satisfying than the horror of knowing such absurdist nonsense for a fact. That said, there is no question as to the technical excellence and atmospheric resonance of Hernandez's daring effort, and it would thus be woefully short-sighted to overlook this film, or this filmmaker, on the basis of a single misstep, however injurious it is.



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