Two important subjects need to be addressed right away:
1. This movie is not a single continuous shot. It's being marketed that way. People keep saying that's what it is. But it's not. That comes straight from the directors themselves in recent interviews. It's composed of several very long takes that have been seamlessly edited to create the illusion of an 80+ minute single shot, kind of like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. For the real deal, please see Alexander Sokurov's 2002 mind-blower, Russian Ark, filmed in one take at St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum with a cast of thousands and three live orchestras. This movie, by contrast, features a cast of four. So there.
2. If you think you're going to go see this movie then turn back now before you read much further. Because much like last year's Insidious, it's the kind of horror that relies on mystery to sustain itself and then, in its final sequence, when it begins to blatantly explain everything, all that power just drains away. It's even difficult to talk about the main performance from Martha Marcy May Marlene star Elizabeth Olsen without succumbing to dangerously spoiler-filled adjectives.
So here goes...
Olsen plays a young woman helping her father and uncle clean up their old abandoned house so that it can be sold. The electricity is out and the windows are boarded up, so they navigate the multi-story, no-light-zone with handheld lanterns even though it's the middle of the day. Nothing to be afraid of, until thumping noises coming from empty rooms disrupt the domestic task at hand, Dad and Uncle Whatshisname keep finding mysterious photographs that they won't show to Olsen, one of her childhood friends shows up and speaks cryptically about the past, Uncle Whatshisname runs off after arguing with Dad and then Dad disappears, too. And that leaves one woman all alone in a dark house.
But is she alone? Is there a stranger in the house? Where did everybody else go and why? What's real and what's not? And how come she can't seem to leave and just run off for help? The answers to those questions, as I mentioned earlier, require no real digging on the part of the audience because the film lurches to an intelligence-insulting halt in its final 15 minutes and makes literal everything that was suggested in the first 70 minutes, answers every "But what about...?" question you were mentally tallying and turns cathartic and obvious when ambiguity and sustained uncertainty would have been just fine. More than just fine -- necessary.
But Olsen is great, delivering a panicked, hyperventilating performance that'll remind you of Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark and the shrieking, under-appreciated Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. And for that first hour or so of unrelenting mystery and blackness, the movie itself, in the hands of Open Water directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, keeps its grip right around your throat. The last thing I was hoping for was an easy way out, for Olsen and for the audience. I'd rather leave a horror film feeling bad or creeped out than comforted and taught lessons about -- well, I can't exactly say. But trust, its ending is as annoying as its beginning and middle are frightening. What makes horror horrifying is unrelieved tension, so when that gets tossed out all you're left with is counting the minutes until it's over.