Part of why I love seeing horror movies in theaters is to watch how the scares play out across the room, especially the ones you don't know are coming. The big jumps that they gave away in the trailer - eh, those are expected and some folks are probably just playing along, but it's those sneak ones (like the early nightmare scene in The Descent) that provoke the most believable response. Why? Because I personally don't get scared at too many horror movies. The above example is one of few "jump scares" that managed to work on me as an adult, and if I wanted to merely list them all for this week's column, this would be a pretty short article.
That's why I've said multiple times in my reviews that I rarely consider the "fright factor" when it comes time to judge a film, because for whatever reason (likely my frequent exposure to R rated horror films since I was 7 or so), they just don't "get to me" for the most part, so it's not fair to keep saying "It's not scary!" for every movie - especially if I watch them alone and don't have any indication if it's my own "immunity" or the actual quality of the scares. Sure, there are exceptions; Descent, Insidious, and Session 9 all worked as intended, but those are the cream of the crop, in my opinion. A hefty portion of the audience gets just as scared by those Platinum Dunes remakes, so who am I to say they're not scary? That's why I focus on the other "horror" stuff - quality of the FX, whether or not the kills are all off-screen (unforgivable in a slasher film), look of the killer when applicable, etc. As long as those things deliver, I don't care that I won't be afraid to walk to my car after the movie is over.
So what happens when I see a movie that DOES scare me and no one else bothers to see it? Currently playing to mostly empty theaters is Silent House (I refused to make the easy pun based on the title!), starring Elizabeth Olsen, which is a real time account of what more or less amounts to a home invasion movie for the most part. Now, the real time trick has been done in a few movies before, though not too often in the horror genre, and it's always a ballsy and admirable risk to take. Think about your favorite horror movies - they all employ the passage of time in some way, whether it's a daytime introduction to your characters before they jump to the nighttime where they all get killed (such as Halloween), or a story that takes time to develop - The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, etc. In other words, it's rare to find one that even takes place all in one day, let alone in a 90 minute period.
But Silent House goes one step further - it's all in one SHOT. This is even rarer than the real-time approach; think about 24 and how they used 3-4 shots at once to fit all of the information into their one hour block - the directors of Silent House don't have anything even remotely close to that sort of luxury. Obviously there are hidden cuts in the film, but very few (between 9-13, from what I understand; I only caught 3 or 4). The movie starts with Olsen hanging around outside the home, she enters with her father, walks around its three floors, gets chased for a while, leaves the house, gets into a car, gets out of the car, back into the house, and up and down again - and the camera tracks without any obvious/traditional edits THE ENTIRE TIME.
Now, even if she was literally just wandering around without doing anything for 80 minutes, that would be an impressive feat, but when you add in supporting characters, dialogue, action scenes, third act reveals - in other words, complications - the fact that they managed to pull this off is nothing short of miraculous. Hitchcock did the one-take thing in Rope, but it's hardly one of his best films: the edits are laughably obvious, and it s painfully static to boot. The aforementioned car scene, for example - think about how awkward it is to get into your car when you're carrying a cup of coffee and your bag or whatever. These folks seamlessly get the camera from outside, following a hysterical and frantic Olsen into the car as the scene continues, and then back out again later, without missing a beat. Hell, filming in a car is a pain in the ass even under normal circumstances!
Sadly, the movie kind of falls apart in its final 20 minutes. However, this just makes the one take thing even more impressive (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!). The film employs a High Tension-esque twist at the top of its final reel, which didn't quite work for me (and unlike that film, doesn't have the benefit of going back to show you alternate versions of scenes to show what REALLY happened). But when you see the sort of imagery that appears as Olsen wraps her mind around the situation and realize that they had to pull it off without the benefit of obvious cutting, it's actually forgivable, even for the better in some ways. If we learned that the villains were just random murderers (like The Strangers), then the one-take approach would be its only memorable aspect. But by going down this strange path, not only do they give the audience an ending they'll be talking about for a while, they also make their approach all the more impressive, similar to how Cloverfield's monster made a big impact because of the lo-fi approach, not because the monster itself was interesting.
So my question is: should it matter that the story doesn't measure up, as long as you're being scared? The plots in comedies are contrived and generic, but as long as you laugh a lot it's okay, right? Should the same apply for horror? Should I/we let a bad ending kill all of the goodwill that came before? Let's face it, horror movies have had a long history of unsatisfying endings, but it doesn't always destroy the film forever - look at Friday the 13th, for example. Finding out that the killer is a woman we never even heard of until moments before her reveal is hardly the sort of thing that an audience can be blown away by (it oddly works better now - "Holy shit, it's NOT Jason like in the other movies?"). Ditto I Know What You Did Last Summer, which revealed its killer to be some guy who was related to the guy they hit at the beginning of the movie, not one of the many red herrings the movie had introduced properly. If more people had turned on this "cheat" maybe we wouldn't have had to endure the two sequels.
Unfortunately, less savvy audiences might not even realize how impressive the film's technical merits are. Director Chris Kentis said he considers it a compliment when someone tells him that they didn't even notice that the film had no obvious edits, which again are the very thing that provides the backbone to like 99% of the scares in horror movies. So even though they've been effectively terrorized for an hour in a very unconventional way (without even realizing it, if Kentis' claim is to be believed), that's not likely to carry any weight once that ending rolls around, as it did for me. I wouldn't go so far as to give the film an F (its reported Cinemascore) due to its ending, because it's still a marvel on a technical level. If you're a faithful reader of this column, you know how easily annoyed I am with sloppiness on a technical level - anyone that puts this much time and dedication into pulling something like this off is someone I tip my hat to. I see movies with shitty endings all the time; the difference is, most of them don't have impressive camerawork to make up for it.
So it's kind of a shame that the movie is tanking. If that Cinemascore is to be believed, it sure as hell won't have any word of mouth help (it had the biggest Saturday to Sunday drop of any film in the top 15, and was the only one that didn't post any gain from Friday to Saturday), and will end up being the year's first wide release horror disappointment after Underworld 4, Woman In Black and Devil Inside (another one with a "Fuck you!" ending) all ended up with grosses of $50 million or more. It's more impressive than any of those from a filmmaking perspective, not to mention daring. The last thing horror should ever be is "safe," and with everyone climbing over each other trying to make the next found footage horror movie, it's a bit of a shame that the one that's ACTUALLY doing something creative with a camera - and for a movie that is legitimately scary for the most part - is being ignored.