How to Film a Nightmare

Silent House imparts genuine scares by telling its story in one continuous camera shot.

silent house 615.jpg

Open Road

In nightmares, the only escape is waking up. Part of what makes the subconscious's scares so terrifying is the way the mind won't let itself get away. Legs root to the ground, hallways become endless, familiar places change their configurations. When we awake, out of breath and clutching the covers, the conditions that trapped us might not make any logical sense in the waking world—but the dream world operates on logic that's determined on the fly.

Horror movies largely follow the same principles. Characters get trapped or isolated via plot devices that stretch plausibility. But one nightmare quality that most horror films don't try to replicate is the way we experience time both in reality and in sleep: as a continuous, unbroken string of events.

Our dreams tend not to have cinematic cuts and edits, whereas in films, breaks in time and point of view remind us that what we're seeing isn't real. In horror, these reminders provide relief. That's why Silent House, the new film from directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau often manages to be as deeply unsettling as any nightmare: It's shot to appear as a single, unbroken take.

The camera's unblinking eye constantly stays with Olsen, and we feel in as much danger as she is.

The film is a remake of the 2010 Uruguayan horror movie The Silent House, which turned a $6,000 budget into a successful festival run that included a screening at Cannes. Given the price tag, that film was a technical marvel, gorgeously shot and expertly choreographed to mask the few cuts that it has so that it appears as one take. Kentis and Lau tweak some of the specifics of the plot, mostly to their film's benefit, but the basic framework and technique remain the same: Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her father John (Adam Trese) are cleaning up an old house when something or someone attacks him, leaving Sarah alternately hiding in and attempting to escape a house that's unusually difficult to exit.

At the start, we quickly learn that the lake house that Sarah and John are packing up—with help from John's brother, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens)—is a vacation property that no one in the family has used much in recent years. Since it's been mostly vacant, vandals and squatters have targeted it, resulting in the family boarding up all the windows and locking up every point of entrance (and, by consequence, every point of exit) as tightly as a tomb. The filmmakers don't want us wondering why Sarah doesn't just get out of the house at the first sign of trouble, and they do as effective a job setting her trap as any nightmare would. As soon as things start going bad, there's nowhere for her to go. Without camera cuts, there's nowhere for us to go, either.

Found-footage has been the go-to gimmick for making horror films feel more real ever since Blair Witch drove student filmmakers to sobbing in the woods. But Silent House demonstrates that as formal techniques go, long takes are hugely effective at doing something that found footage has always struggled with: sustaining tension and terror over long periods of time. Because of their amateur filmmaker vibe, many of Blair Witch's copycats are marred by long stretches of waiting and exposition that at best serve as time padding, and at worst feel like watching someone else's home movies.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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