October 11, 2011

La Casa Muda (2010)

The cinema of Uruguay is not exactly known for its ventures into the horror genre, as outside the work of independent filmmaker Ricardo Islas (whom by the way, works and lives in the U.S. since 1997), the horror production of the South American country is exceedingly rare. So, with this in mind, the mere release of a new example of Uruguayan horror, Gustavo Hernández' "La Casa Muda", is certainly an event that creates lots of expectations. However, beyond its genre and nationality, "La Casa Muda" is a movie that has a couple more of interesting particularities that make it a unique film: it is one of the very first films in the world that are made using a handheld high-definition digital single-lens reflex camera (Canon EOS 5D Mark II to be precise), and on top of that, the majority of the film consists of a single continuous take (78 of a total of 86 minutes). Certainly, those three elements make "La Casa Muda" an interesting experiment to witness but, while Hernández succeeds in many aspects, "La Casa Muda" also has important shortcomings.

Translated literally as "The Mute House", but better known in English as "The Silent House", the film is the story of Laura (Florencia Colucci), a young woman who travels to an old cottage located deep in the woods, in order to help her father Wilson (Gustavo Alonso) to repair the place. Wilson has been hired by the own Néstor (Abel Tripaldi), as he wants to sell the house. Néstor gives Wilson the keys and leaves to the city, as father and daughter will spend the nigth there, and the work will begin the following morning. The two of them prepare to sleep when a loud noise is heard in the upper floor of the house. Wilson knows that the upper floor is too damaged and it's dangerous, so he asks Laura to wait for him while he goes upstairs to check out. Laura waits for her father, but something or someone viciously attacks Wilson and apparently kills him. Alone and in the dark, Laura begins to look for her father, knowing that something else is in the house with her, waiting, stalking, in silence.

Inspired by an unsolved case of the 1940s, director Gustavo Hernández and producer Gustavo Rojo wrote the story for "La Casa Muda", which writer Oscar Estévez adapted to the screen. In "La Casa Muda", the story follows Laura as she wanders through the house in the dark, looking for her father and trying to make sense of what's happening. The key is the mystery, and the writers play it well, leaving just enough clues to keep the ball rolling, and the plot twists with a touch of subtlety that aims to keep the film ambiguous until its revealing (and problematic) conclusion. And all the classic elements for a scary movie are there: creepy sounds, nursery rhymes, an abandoned house and a terrible dark secret. Certainly, "La Casa Muda" doesn't offer something new or original in its story, but that's never its intention. Instead, "La Casa Muda" is entirely based on the execution: the precise use of those clichés and atmosphere to tell its tale. And precision is key in this particular case, since the execution pertains one single long take.

And well, speaking strictly in purely technical terms, the execution of this feat is absolutely remarkable. Director Gustavo Hernández truly manages to tell the mystery of the silent house in apparently one long take, with his limited budget and his DSLR camera. Hernández' builds up his tale with great care, and a great emphasis on purely visual narrative. His great eye for compositions result in a real accomplishment for this kind of experiments: no shot (or better said, movement) is a waste. Instrumental for this achievement is without a doubt the remarkable job of cinematographer Pedro Luque, who must had faced a great challenge in bringing to life Hernández' vision. Specially the use of light and darkness (at times, only a candle lights the place). Certainly, not an easy feat to accomplish, though unfortunately, "La Casa Muda" is one of those films where the gimmick overshadows everything else. And sadly, not only because of the gimmick is amazing, but because everything else isn't that good.

Nevertheless, the work of actress Florencia Colucci truly receives praise, as she's the one who drives the film, with the camera following her wandering through the silent house. Coluuci looks pretty natural, and her reactions to the events in the house feel so real that add a lot of verosimilitude to her character. Granted, certain actions that Laura are more than questionable, though that's more the fault of the scriptwriters, because Colucci never feels artificial or over-the-top. Like Hernández and Luque's technical achievement, Colucci's performance as Laura is worhty of great praise, as she manages to add a lot of verosimilitude to a problematic screenplay and an underwritten character. As Néstor, Abel Tripaldi is effective and natural, though nothing really too amazing. Granted, neither Abel Tripaldi nor actor Gustavo Alonso (who plays Laura's father Wilson) are on screen that much compared to COlucci, so it could be said that both do their work efficiently given their limited roles.

Sadly, beyond its merit as a technical achievement, there is little to find in "La Casa Muda". Certainly director Gustavo Hernández creates a haunting atmosphere of dread, playing with silence, light and darkness, and he aims to the ancient fear of the unseen. However, he never really dares to go for something beyond and the story limits most of its time to follow a scared woman as she wanders through the somber house alone. And when it finally goes beyond, it opts for a dissapointing conclusion that not only is contrived, but ultimately betrays everything else that has taken place before. The ending credits include photographs that attempt to justify such twist but just make it worse. Anyways, even this unfortunate finale would be more forgivable if the journey to reach it had been more enjoyable, but sadly it's not. While Hernández' camera captures the actions with a certain dark beauty, the actions are tedious, as following Laura wandering around in the dark soon gets tiresome and boring.

British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock once said that "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out". Perhaps those dull bits are the greatest enemy of films that attempt to be done in one single long take. Despite its haunting beauty, "La Casa Muda" fails to avoid that dullness, and leaves its character underdeveloped and alone. It's undeniable that Hernández achieved a lot with his very limited resources but, while it is true that pretty often "less is more" in filmmaking, Hernández' film went to the extreme and ended up at "not enough". In the end, there is enough "good" in Hernández "La Casa Muda" to make it worth a watch, but at the same time enough "bad" to make impossible to call it a satisfying experiment.



Marin Mandir said...

I really liked this film. I agree with your views about the ill-considered ending, but up to it I was intrigued and glued to the screen, so I cannot consider it as a major factor of wreckage of this film. Filming a horror in one long take (there was a cut when the lights went out, but it was cleverly hidden) is a major enterprise, it gave us the feeling of a 'realistic horror' with no cheating. That is why I have to like this film, despite its flaws.

J Luis Rivera said...

Maybe I was a bit too harsh with it, but I did feel bored at moments.

I do recognize the courage and the value of the experiment.

Great to see you again over here Marin!