Of all the movie formats out there, it is the one-take film that is perhaps the hardest to master. Whereas other films shoot a story scene by scene, often out of order, these films start at scene one and don’t stop shooting until it is time for the end credits to roll. This puts a lot of pressure onto both cast and crew to be perfect. The format is as close as film gets to the live theatre experience for an actor, which makes it a daunting prospect for all who sign up. When these films do work though, they are magic.
Typically this method of storytelling is sporadically undertaken, but there must be something in the water at the moment as Pigeon Shrine FrightFest has not one, but two one-take movies on this year’s schedule. The first is Failure! from Mexican director Alex Kahuam. Although screening at FrightFes,t Kahuam’s film pivots away from traditional genre elements; his story instead brings tension and dread from the situation that his protagonist finds himself in. FrightFest’s second one-take film, Thomas Sieben’s Home Sweet Home: Where Evil Lives, unfolds within a more horror friendly setting. Presenting the viewer with a steady slew of scares, Home Sweet Home mixes elements of home invasion, ghosts, and the occult to create a rich foundation for frights.
Home Sweet Home begins innocuously enough as heavily pregnant Maria (Nilam Farooq) arrives at a work-in-progress bed and breakfast. The property belongs to the family of her fiancé Viktor (David Kross), and the pair have plans to open their own business. Work is well underway, and whilst Viktor is stuck at work Maria has arrived to get started on the final phase of the project. The opening scenes set up Maria and her dynamic with Viktor. The pair converse over video call and are presented like any other couple on the precipice of parenthood. Viktor is riddled with guilt that Maria is on her own in the rural location, his concern for Maria and the baby evident. Maria is much more relaxed about her impending future, but some spotting raises alarm and Viktor’s father, Wilhelm (Justus von Dohnányi) – a doctor – is called in.
Everything about these early moments of Home Sweet Home feel natural and normal. It is important that this tone is established quickly so Sieben can start filtering in elements of horror. An early scare in which the audience sees something that Maria doesn’t, is extremely effective. The sequence comes from nowhere, playing on everyone’s fear of unexpected intruders. Whilst the identity and intention of the figure is unclear, that Maria is unaware of their existence injects a welcome sense of dread for the viewer. As Maria awaits her future father-in-law’s arrival, she wanders around the house. Her exploration begins the switch from drama to horror as she unearths a strange secret room in the basement. The discovery of the room alone would be unsettling enough when coupled with the earlier encounter to conjure up Parasite and Barbarian level nerves, but Home Sweet Home has something else up its sleeve.
Whereas some films use the one-take structure as a gimmick, Home Sweet Home doesn’t. Sieben’s use of camerawork never calls attention to itself. Shot in a handheld style so as to reflect Maria’s slow journey into panic, it is easy to forget that Home Sweet Home is a one-take movie. The only way to achieve this is through meticulous planning. Home Sweet Home must have been meticulously planned down to the letter, and the result is slick and accomplished. Sieben pushes every aspect and sees Maria journey not just around the house, but outside of it, not an easy feat when you factor in the dwindling daylight. The standout in terms of the one-take angle is that Sieben includes a dream sequence. Its construction is devious and so seamless that were you not to know of Home Sweet Home’s one-take creation, you would not be aware of it.
Although Home Sweet Home’s construction is an interesting trivia point, what sells the film is the performance of Nilam Farooq. She carries the weight of this film (and her bump) effortlessly. The audience are not afforded much time to get to know Maria, and yet the little glimpses are enough to make her someone to root for. Maria might be thirty-seven weeks pregnant, but she is not an invalid. So often films coddle their pregnant women, when in reality there is no one stronger or more determined. Her commitment to survival is commendable and the gauntlet of emotions that Farroq displays sucks the viewer in at every step of the ordeal.
Home Sweet Home’s other strong suit is Sieben’s ability to conduct tension. Even as Home Sweet Home begins, he teases some mild moments of unease. An exchange between Maria and her new neighbour screams red flags. Later, the sudden appearance of the figure that Maria misses, instantly spikes the terror. The exploration of the secret room creates an eerie atmosphere and the dream sequence makes the viewer feel unbalanced. It is a simple act of trying to hide that fully denotes Sieben as a maestro of dread and tension. The sequence is so well shot and performed that it may leave some audience members hiding in their hands. From this moment on the threat factor ratchets up and alongside Maria, the audience will be left fighting for breath.
With so much care and attention placed on camerawork, performance and creating mood, the connective tissue of the story becomes a slight weak link. Although the narrative does strive to strike out into some new territory, some of the story beats are a little too familiar. Some intended rug pulls don’t achieve their payoff, but thankfully even this does not tarnish other components too harshly. Overall, Home Sweet Home manages to be both a solid horror story and an accomplished feat of film-making. Riddled with tension and drenched in dread, Home Sweet Home is a harmonious concoction of a variety of popular sub-genres. That it was produced in one-take is just icing on top of what is already a dastardly delicious slice of cake.
Home Sweet Home was reviewed at Pigeon Shrine FrightFest 2023.
Home Sweet Home: Where Evil Lives
Thomas Sieben proves himself skilful at wielding tension in this dread-soaked blend of home invasion, pregnant woman in peril, occult, and haunted houses.