How to Film a Nightmare

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

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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 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.

But when events take place in real time, from an unbroken point of view, you can create a feature-length film that is scary from the moment you hear the first creak of a floorboard. In Silent House, there's a real sense of sharing in Sarah's panic. The camera's unblinking eye constantly stays with her, and we feel in as much danger as she is. When she slowly pushes open a door to investigate a room, audience members feel just as inclined to crane their necks to look into the room as she does. We're all in this together.

The most famous early experiment in long-take filmmaking was from no less a talent than Alfred Hitchcock, who employed the technique in his 1948 thriller Rope. But while Hitch was somewhat limited by the clunky equipment of his day and the 10-minute length of a single magazine of film, digital cinematography allows for much greater freedom. Almost anything is possible for the filmmaker talented enough to pull it off, and from the very start of Silent House, Kentis and Lau delight in pushing the boundaries of the technique, opening with an overhead crane shot that smoothly transitions from the air to the ground as we follow Sarah up to the old house. They frequently play with perspective, switching from following shots to point-of-view perspectives without breaks, and they use mirrors and the actors' bodies to strategically limit the field of vision in preparation for eerie reveals.

But even with artists behind the camera who have the technical skill to pull this off, it still won't work without someone in front of the lens who can withstand the unforgiving long takes and constant scrutiny. Kentis and Lau luck out with Elizabeth Olsen, known before last year's Sundance Film Festival mostly as the sister of Mary Kate and Ashley, and after the festival as one of the best young actresses working thanks to her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Her work here isn't as complex or demanding as in that film, but she's still a powerhouse onscreen, bringing unexpected weight to what might have been a generic scream-queen role in lesser hands. The flipside of being so good, though, is that she highlights the deficiencies of her co-stars, who are just as awful as one might expect of low-budget horror. Thankfully, they're off-screen for most of the movie.

Silent House also stumbles considerably in its closing minutes, squandering the improvements it made to the plot of its source material by ditching that film's subtlety. In frustrating fashion, the filmmakers engineer a final confrontation that explicitly spells out plot elements that had already sufficiently been implied regarding exactly what's going on in the house. For a film so smart at the art of scaring people, it's disappointing that the end assumes its audience isn't so bright.

But right up until that point, the film is hugely successful at the hardest thing to do in horror movies: manufacturing genuine, deep-seated scares instead of cheap shocks. As found-footage horror sputters and its long-overstayed welcome begins to show in awful films like The Devil Inside, Silent House points to alternate methods for replicating nightmares. When it's done this well, it may even inspire some of its own.