Silent House (2012)
85 min., rated R.
In Americanizing the 2010 Uruguayan horror film, La Casa Muda (The Silent House), husband-and-wife filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have their work cut out for them. The deal breaker for that lackluster film was its wishy-washy narrative route when it came time for the story to come together. But Kentis and Lau, who scared vacationers away from scuba diving with their tense 2003 nightmare, Open Water, conquer such a tall order in the couple’s latest effort — Silent House.
In place of attending college, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is helping her father John (Adam Trese) and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) fix up their family summer house so it can be sold. A loud noise startles Sarah, so her father investigates but then disappears. Sarah tries to find a way out when she’s not being chased around by a mysterious man. Is it a squatter that’s terrorizing Sarah? Or is the house haunted? Or… is it something else?
Like the first film, the stylistic conceit of Silent House is that it’s shot in one continuous take and played out in real time over the course of 85 minutes. Even though this isn’t the groundbreaker for such a cinematic stunt (Hitchcock accomplished this illusion in 1948′s Rope), it’s still a neat trick and not a simple undertaking (wow, no boom mike shadow?!). Kentis, Lau, and cinematographer Igor Martinovic demonstrate dexterous choreography to convince us that we’re watching a “oner.”
Where Silent House scores is in cranking up the disconcerting, nerve-frying unease from the intimate technical angle. Also, what a difference a new script (and a few tweaks to the final revelation) can make to the final product. Managing to get around the snags of the foreign version’s stupid, sloppy writing, Lau’s script better handles the by-now standard twist, so it works under scrutiny, in retrospect. A few too many clues are dropped before the big reveal and feel like less-than-subtle devices. However, the manner in which secrets are finally presented doesn’t feel like a cheat and, compared to Gustavo Hernández’s film, actually disturbs on the second try.
Even before her extraordinary star-making performance in 2011′s unforgettably haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen made this other Sundance movie. Here, her on-the-fly performance is so watchable and committed, and good thing, because the camera never leaves her side and she has to hit her mark. Olsen goes through the emotional wringer, with her scared face conveying a vulnerability and strong intuition. As we go along with Sarah, we don’t know anything more than she does, waiting for something or someone to pounce on her and us.
Silent House might not reinvent the spooky-house genre in any way, but as a visceral experience, it’s mostly effective at what it aims to do, which is putting a lump in your throat.
Casa de Mi Padre (2012)
84 min., rated R.
The funny thing about telenovelas is that they’re so absurdly melodramatic, with cheap-o production values, painfully earnest acting, and clunky dialogue. That’s the one joke in Casa de Mi Padre, a deadpan, affectionate send-up of those Spanish soap operas and grindhouse-style spaghetti westerns, and it’s stretched like Silly Putty to 84 minutes. Director Matt Piedmont, making his feature debut, and screenwriter Andrew Steele have lovingly created an oddball novelty, but given their collaboration with star Will Ferrell on the sketch-comedy Web series, Funny or Die Presents, this feature-length effort might’ve worked better as a sketch. As Casa de Mi Padre proves, the conception is cutely amusing, but the execution is meager, at best.
Casa de Mi Padre is a goof through and through, Ferrell having the cajones to speak entirely in Spanish as a big-hearted, fat-headed ranchero. Director Piedmont and the crew get all the visual details right and are surely having fun making an intentionally amateurish movie. There are painted-on-cardboard backdrops and rear-projection driving shots, continuity errors, and missing reels (one coming with a long apology from the second camera assistant).
But as a gags aplenty comedy, ¡no más! Between the smirks and chuckles, there are long smoke breaks when the jokes either fall flat or are nonexistent. While we’re on the subject, three laughs involve smoking, one of which has a character being shot in the chest and then asking for a cigarette during his last breath.
As a cinematic experiment, it’s easy to have affection for, but as a comedic spoof, it’s only fitfully amusing and wears thin when a series of shorts would’ve been just fine. By the end of the year, nobody’s going to remember the jokes in Casa de Mi Padre, just the overall concept.