Monday, 1 August 2011

The big idea

If you want to pitch a movie to a Hollywood studio, there are two principles to keep in mind - keep the costs as low as you can, and the concept as high as you can. Studio executives love a movie that can be explained in the time it takes to roll up a twenty dollar bill, even more so if the prospective film's budget calls for little more than the other notes in their wallet. The thriller and horror genres have always suited the high concept - since they encourage film makers to find creative ways to shock and surprise, without resorting to splashing millions on flashy CGI and big-name stars. And there are few concepts higher than The Silent House, which is released on DVD this week.

Ostensibly another haunted house movie about a father and daughter hired to renovate a run-down house, the Uruguayan film is notable for being shot in a single 79 minute take. Filmed using a hand-held camera and lit with a combination of candles and lanterns, The Silent House makes great use of the gloomy space around the screen in order to frame its scares. Critics have complained that there are moments of absolute darkness that could have been used to hide the joins between different takes, but even so, there's an abundance of creativity on display here that puts standard Hollywood fare to shame. 

So in honour of The Silent House's release, here are five other recent thrillers that have relied on ingenuity and imagination in order to shock their audiences.


Having won the hearts of horror fans with his retro-slasher tribute Hatchet, Adam Green surprised everyone with his 2010 thriller Frozen, which replaced splashy gore with slow burning tension and a nasty case of frostbite. Three obnoxious students try to cheat their way onto a ski-lift for one last run before the resort closes for the weekend, only find themselves stuck halfway up the mountainside. Green piles on the danger, torturing his cast with extreme cold, vertigo-inducing heights and a ravenous pack of wolves. The vast majority of the film's running time takes place on the rickety chair lift, as the gravity of the situation kicks in, and the gravity of the mountainside threatens to hurriedly reunite our protagonists with the ground.


Ryan Reynolds is much more than the guy with a Green Lantern and a little black book that boasts Scarlett Johansson and Alanis Morissette amongst its crossed out names. He's also a guy who likes to take risks, as he proved when he signed up to appear in Buried, a Spanish thriller by director Rodrigo Cortés. Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, an American truck driver working in Iraq, who wakes after an ambush to find he's stuck in a dark space with only a mobile phone, some glowsticks and a cigarette lighter. Weirdly, he's not at an illegal rave, he's actually been buried alive and has to race against the clock to try and negotiate his own release. With time, oxygen and battery life running out, the film charts Conroy's increasingly hysterical attempts to save himself - not made any easier by the mindless bureaucracy of the people on the other end of his phone line. Despite the fact that the entire film is shot inside a box no bigger than an IKEA wardrobe, Cortés manages to concoct a dynamic and visually arresting film. Not one for claustrophobics though.

Open Water

Coming four years after Renny Harlin's CGI-splattered attempt to resurrect the 'killer shark' sub-genre, Open Water took a far more low-fi approach. Supposedly based on a true story, Chris Kentis' fishy shocker follows a luckless couple who get accidentally left behind on a scuba diving trip in the Caribbean. When the hapless twosome resurface to find themselves stuck in the middle of the sea, with no boats or land in sight, they begin treading water in hope that someone will be back to get them. Unfortunately, it's not a boat that finds them, but a shiver of sharks, and all that splashing is making them hungry. To be honest, the couple spend so long bickering that you're ready to throw a bucket of chum in the water by the time the first dorsal fin breaks the waves. However, the strength of the concept lies in the reality of its depiction, rather than the likeability of its protagonists. The camera is stuck in the water alongside the hapless couple, leaving the audience with no choice but to empathise with their salty predicament. Don't be surprised to find that you've involuntarily tucked your knees under your chin to prevent your toes from being bitten off.

Phone Booth

Larry Cohen is the king of high concept, spending the last forty years churning out compelling curios that could be explained on the back of a McDonald's napkin. Having introduced unsuspecting audiences to mutant babies, killer yoghurt and a murderous ambulance that abducted diabetics, his finest hour is probably movie set in a phone booth - an idea he originally pitched to Alfred Hitchcock back in the 1960s. A big fan of gimmicks, Hitchcock loved the idea but couldn't figure out how to keep the film's lead character stuck in a phone box, so the idea was put on hold. In the 90s, Cohen found himself revisiting his original treatment, and finally seized on the idea of a man being threatened by a sniper. For a while, this was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, with Jim Carrey, Will Smith and Mel Gibson (no stranger to high-stress phone calls) attached at various stages during its development, but it took Colin Farrell's rapidly rising star to get the film into production. Ironically, having taken over thirty years to make it to the big screen, Phone Booth finally opened within months of another film with the exact same concept - Liberty Stands Still, featuring Linda Fiorentino.

Nick of Time

Long before Johnny Depp discovered untold riches, thanks to a matted weave and a treasure chest full of eyeliner, he was a decidedly uncommercial prospect for most film studios. His love of offbeat, indie films meant he was always a bit of a gamble in the leading man stakes. Interestingly, the one time he tried to play the handsome hero, he came off as bland and unconvincing, and Nick of Time sank without a trace. Despite these shortcomings, the film is actually an efficient little real-time waster, telling the story of a Hitchcockian everyman who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Returning to LA following his ex-wife's funeral, Gene Watson is intercepted by two fake police officers who kidnap his daughter and tell him he has an hour to assassinate the female senator staying in a nearby hotel. Six years before Jack Bauer found himself in a similar predicament, racing against a persistently ticking clock, John Badham utilised the real-time concept to give his film an economical efficiency, that elevated it above the standard conspiracy thriller cliches.

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