More than perhaps any genre, horror is receptive to a good gimmick. In 2014, Unfriended took place inside a laptop screen, while horror protagonists have been stranded on chairlifts (2010’s Frozen) and bobbing in the the ocean (2003’s Open Water). What is the decades-long found footage phenomenon but an extended riff on a central gimmick? Horror is no more rote a genre than romantic comedy (there are about as many ways to watch people fall in love as there are to watch them die), but we don’t go to a horror movie demanding emotional connection with the characters. We go to be shocked, pummeled and tossed out with a disbelieving smile, and there’s nothing like a high concept to let you know you’re probably going to experience something you’ve never seen before.
Every so often, though, a high concept transcends gimmickry to become a powerful story engine, and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place has one of the best in recent memory: a horror movie with virtually no dialogue, and as little sound as the characters are capable of making.
Opening on what appears to be a familiar post-cataclysm landscape — a family scavenges in the ruins of a store, onscreen text informing viewers this is day 89 — one comes to understand that the plague is not a disease but an infestation of bloodthirsty creatures possessed of no sight, but incredibly sensitive hearing. After the story quickly jumps to day 472, the essential clues are revealed: there are three creatures in the vicinity of this family’s farmhouse, and… that’s about it. It’s a film low in conventional plotting — no inciting incident, no refusal of the call — that focuses instead on the simple struggle to survive.
The notion that this is a mere gimmick is banished immediately as the story locates and drills into universal pressure points. Without benefit of expository dialogue, this family becomes a primal all-family, ideal for audience projection. And from the first frame, the conceit places viewers in a familiar horror zone — the stillness before a scare — and then traps one there, building tension to an almost unbearable level and seldom letting up.
Suggestions of gimmickry are dismissed, as well, by the depth with which the film explores the implications of its premise. On arriving home, the characters step gingerly around floorboards painted blue to denote creakiness, and the story is peppered with such grace notes that demonstrate a full consideration of this existence. In a fiendishly effective “Chekhov’s gun,” Emily Blunt’s matriarch is quite pregnant; the script never telegraphs the horrific implications, trusting that the viewer will generate terror all the more organically for being made to do so internally.
The performances are strong in a largely unflashy way. The clear standout is Millicent Simmonds, a young deaf actress who delivers her second performance here and commands the screen with a power entirely out of proportion with her inexperience. Krasinski, so far cursed to live in the shadow of his nearly decade-long stint on NBC’s The Office, powerfully harnesses his innate warmth for what’s easily his strongest cinematic performance yet, evoking an average father forced to become fierce protector of this nightmarish Swiss Family Robinson.
As a director, Krasinski has undergone a steep learning curve. A Quiet Place comes two years after the disastrous The Hollars, and while he ably builds tension and emotion — in its first act, this is less a horror movie than a sorrow movie, and one may feel it keenly — a few concessions to conventional storytelling keep the film off the top shelf of the recent prestige horror boom. An overreliance on traditional scoring removes some power from the central device — if the characters are plagued by quiet, why deny the audience the same experience in favor of a familiar emotive road map? And the early question of when and how dialogue might be employed is answered quickly as Krasinski allows two full conversations, releasing potent tension while adding little to the viewer’s understanding of or empathy for the characters (the original spec screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods contained only one line of dialogue, so the choice does fall to Krasinski’s heavy rewrites).
More than perhaps any genre, though, horror needs to achieve a few gut-level goals, and intellectual considerations tend to be secondary in determining its effectiveness. A Quiet Place masterfully builds tension, pays it off in unexpectedly satisfying ways and provokes genuine emotional investment in its characters with precious few traditional tools at its disposal. This film could have satisfied by relying on a gimmick; in choosing to go the extra mile, it earns consideration for the status of a mainstream horror classic.
Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren) is a staff writer for Bright Wall Dark Room. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, his writing has been featured in New Limestone Review and Furious Gazelle. He wrote and directed the indie feature film ‘West of Her,’ available now for digital purchase and rental. Ethan also wrote the award-winning play ‘Why Are You Nowhere?’ He lives in the Boston area with his wife Caitlin and their daughter Nora.