Silent House - No cuts, no edits, nowhere to hide

New horror film Silent House is the latest movie to use one-take sequences to create tension, says James Mottram

A grungy horror remake is not an automatic guarantee of technical virtuosity. But husband-and-wife filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's Silent House is like no other scary movie you'll see all year. Based on the 2010 Uruguayan film La Casa Muda by Gustavo Hernández, it's part of a small cluster of films that purport to be "single-take" movies.

Begun by Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film Rope, it's the ultimate challenge for a filmmaker: shoot an entire movie using just one take. No cuts, no edits, just one seamless travelling shot that goes from titles to credits. An entire film perfectly executed and captured in real-time, while it might be a "stunt" as Hitch famously called it, it's also the chance to deliver a bravura piece of filmmaking.

Think of some of the most electric tracking shots ever committed to film – the opening sequence to Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, the trawl through the kitchen of the Copacabana nightclub in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas – and then imagine trying to replicate that over a 90-minute movie. One lighting gaff, one fluffed line, and it all has to be reset.

Changing a few details from the original, Silent House follows a young girl, Sarah (Martha Marcy May Marlene star Elizabeth Olsen) and her father John (Adam Trese), as they enter their boarded-up summer house. Seen entirely from the daughter's point-of-view, it attempts to produce the film with one shot. "In many ways we saw it as an experiment," says Kentis. "We had the benefit of the original film, but we knew we were obligated to take it even further. They set a bar and we had to do that."

Truth be told, the one-take is an illusion, with the film broken down into a series of bite-sized shots, each lasting between 10 and 15 minutes, which are then woven together to look like a single epic take.

Kentis and Lau are merely taking their leave from Rope's sleight-of-hand. Back in 1948, Hitchcock's film – with its murder story set in one apartment – was shot in several 10-minute segments. There was little choice given this was the standard length of a film camera magazine. And the cuts were concealed with cunning pans towards darkness (a character's back, the lid of a chest) before re-emerging from the gloom with the camera freshly loaded.

Of course, this was before the advent of lightweight HD digital cameras – highly portable devices that are able to shoot for hours at a time, even in low light. "It's much easier to pull these kinds of things off today," says Kentis. So why didn't they? "It wasn't the point of the experiment," he replies. "What it was about was not breaking the Guinness record for the longest shot, but making the most effective experience. Certainly, if we'd wanted to, we could've pulled the whole thing off truly in one single shot."

During the US release, however, Silent House has been marketed as a single-take film. Is it being dishonest? Kentis thinks not. "Gollum isn't real in Lord of the Rings," he says, "but he works great. It isn't a matter of how we achieved it."

Indeed, the end result is impressive. Impossible to see where the dots have been joined, the film's intense, claustrophobic atmosphere benefits from its long, uninterrupted takes, sewn together as one.

Admittedly, Silent House and its Uruguayan predecessor have already been beaten to it by some genuine one-take movies. Aleksandr Sokurov's 2002 film Russian Ark is a deft waltz around the corridors of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in an attempt to bring to life Russian history. Yet even that cheated – the sound was added later.

Mike Figgis' experimental Timecode (2000), set around a film production office, used the split-screen technique to simultaneously show four continuous 90-minute takes. With a quartet of narratives unfolding in real-time, Figgis shot the film over 15 days, with the actors told never to wear the same outfit on each day they were filming. "This way there could never ever be the possibility of stealing a scene from another day's shoot and cheating it in the edit," says Figgis.

Another real-time effort came a few years later – Spiros Stathoulopoulos' terrorism thriller PVC-1 (2007). Set in rural Colombia, it follows what happens when a gang of thugs invade a home, clamping a pipe bomb around a woman's neck in an effort to extort money from her husband. Shot in one unbroken 81-minute take, as the family head into the jungle to look for help, it's certainly a remarkable technical achievement. Yet, given the life-or-death scenario, the film lacks tension – not least due to long scenes of watching the characters traipse through the jungle.

Perhaps this is why Silent House, even with its sleight-of-hand, is still a remarkable achievement. With Sarah left stranded and terrified after her father suddenly disappears and blood-curdling noises begin to float through the walls, the one-take effect is chilling. That we never cut away only increases the inescapable nature of the horrors around her.

Look at films like Russian Ark, Timecode and PVC-1 and for all their dazzling technical virtuosity, they can feel dramatically inert at times. Not so here, largely thanks to the staying power of Olsen. "We would get through an 11 or 12-minute take and something would go wrong 10 minutes in," admits Olsen, "which would make every single thing you did completely unusable."

'Silent House' opens on 4 May

Movie magic - five classic one-shot sequences

Atonement (2007)

"I do get a kick out of those shots," noted Joe Wright. No wonder: his five-and-a-half minute glide across the Normandy beach among dozens of Allied soldiers awaiting the evacuation of Dunkirk is a tour-de-force.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles' film noir opens with this shot (later aped in the intro to Robert Altman's 'The Player') that sees a bomb planted in a car. In a perfect mini-arc, the camera follows the vehicle through town until it blows up.

Goodfellas (1990)

Seminal tracking shot that sees Ray Liotta's mobster Henry Hill guide his future wife through the corridors, kitchen and finally into the belly of the Copacabana nightclub. Power, money and machismo all summed up in one elegant, fluid movement.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Beginning with the title in tacky neon lights, the camera swoops down and into the Hot Traxx nightclub over the road, offering up a dazzling introduction to all the main players in P.T. Anderson's San Fernando Valley porn epic.

Oldboy (2003)

Orchestrating a mass brawl in one take is no mean feat, but Park Chan-wook makes it look easy in his revenge drama, as the camera slides right to left, observing its antihero take on a flurry of fists and weapons.

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