Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m a bit of a fan of horror movies that make good use of sound. So when I heard that A Quiet Place (Krasinski, 2018) made both good and plot significant use of sound I absolutely had to see it on the big screen with – most importantly – a stonking great sound system.
I would definitely recommend seeing A Quiet Place in the cinema if you can, and failing that with a bunch of other people. This is a film that definitely benefits from the collective experience, of being alone in the dark with lots of other people. I saw it in a packed screening on a Friday night, and more than the sound system or the big screen, it was the building claustrophobic tension both on screen and in the room that made the film such an enjoyable experience. The soft susurration of sixty or seventy people inhaling sharply or softly gasping, as they valiantly try not to scream has it’s own strange power.
The idea of the genre-savvy horror film has become so over-used that it’s become a cliché – practically a sub-genre in its own right – in and of itself, but A Quiet Place is a very different kind of genre savvy. It is a horror movie that knows all the audio tricks that are much beloved by horror films and their fans, and uses them to its advantage. The film is effective without that extra knowledge, but for those in the know, there is an extra layer of subtext and enjoyment as the film-makers play with our expectations.
A surprising number of modern horror films still revolve around the screaming point, that cathartic female scream of horror. (Amusingly, for all Chion’s talk of masochistic pleasure in identification, the most ‘iconic’ and arguably overused scream sound-effect of recent years – the Wilhelm Scream – is in fact a man’s scream.) But for this film it is instead the absence of the scream that provides the tension. In this film to scream is to bring certain death, so that even the archetypal scream of life, that which accompanies birth, is denied to us, being masked by an – intentional – explosion.
The screaming point of A Quiet Place is a man’s scream rather than a woman’s scream, but no less powerful or raw for it. The moment is only lightly foreshadowed so while we see it coming, the realisation comes when the action is already inevitable, events are already in motion, an act of desperation yet one entered into deliberately. Yet the moment that breaks the tension is the conversation that precedes it, a moment of profound emotional catharsis, conducted entirely in sign language. An intimate and tender moment, between two characters, underwritten by the tension as both the audience and the other half of the conversation come to understand what he’s about to do. The scream we’ve been longing for has its thunder stolen, serving instead as cover for an escape and as stand-in for the grieving that must necessarily be conducted quietly.
(As an aside, this is the second film I’ve seen this year with significant portions of the dialogue being delivered in ASL with subtitles and seriously, why is this still an issue? The young actress playing Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is brilliant, a really compelling young actress. I want to see Wonderstruck (Haynes, 2017) purely on the strength of her being in it. Her performance neatly turns audience expectations of mute characters in horror movies on their head. She is no blank sheet or cypher for meaning to be inscribed upon or onto. Instead she drives plot and conflict, expressing herself clearly, not only in ASL but her wonderfully expressive face, indicates her ‘loudness’ and ‘silences’ that have nothing to do with the amount of sound she’s actually making at a given moment. And while she might indeed hold the secret to their survival, as soon as she realises it she has no problems communicating it. The film itself ending on a – deeply satisfying – moment of shared understanding between mother and daughter that requires no words.)
Otherwise the film uses sound, both in plot and practical terms, in both clever and consistent ways. The big plot significant revelation that we get, feels both earned and believable, with the clues that were left for us along the way combining to leave us feeling as though the answer has been lurking just out of…hearing range.