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Front Page - Friday, April 13, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘Quiet Place’ takes horror, suspense to a whole new level

A father and son are walking silently through a forest in the light of day. They’re wearing no shoes because feet don’t squeak. They’re walking on a path of sand because it doesn’t crunch like dry leaves or snap like twigs. And when they speak, they use sign language because the air can’t carry those words to things that will kill them if they knew they were there.

They come upon a grisly scene: an eviscerated human body lies dead on the ground. Nearby, an old man looks up from the bloody mess and turns his gaze to the hikers. The father sees the will to live has been drained from the man and desperately motions for him to be quiet.

But the die has already been cast. The old man’s face twists into a mask of grief and horror and he opens his mouth and screams, piercing the silence with agony. Within seconds, something that should not exist darts out of the forest in a blur and the old man’s head is gone.

Welcome to “A Quiet Place,” a minor cinematic masterpiece that proves less can indeed be more.

For as long as movies have had sound, filmmakers have used it to create tension and atmosphere and startle audiences. The creators of scary films and science fiction movies became especially skilled at using prolonged stretches of silence followed by a sudden burst of noise to frighten moviegoers.

I imagine a lot of popcorn has been spilled over the decades as the proverbial cat jumped out of nowhere and screeched at an unsuspecting protagonist.

But therein lies a problem. Genre filmmakers used the same tricks over and over again until audiences could see them coming. How often have you known someone was about to pop into view and shock someone? To give jaded moviegoers a jolt, filmmakers kept turning up the volume until a person suddenly appearing onscreen produced a clamorous, ear-shattering noise.

(I’m glad things don’t work that way in the real world. I doubt my heart could take the shock of attorney Alex Michel, who works down the hall at the James Building, popping his head into my office to offer his thoughts on my latest movie review.)

So how do you frighten wearied audiences again? You do what actor, writer and director John Krasinski (yes, the guy from the sitcom “The Office”) did in “A Quiet Place,” a new sci-fi horror film currently in theaters: you create a world in which there can be no sound.

“A Quiet Place” is set in the crumbled, overgrown remains of a world attacked by a small number of ostensibly alien creatures that sense prey using hypersensitive hearing. Whether they can see or smell is never discussed, although I assumed they were blind.

In the rural area outside a small, decimated American town, a family of five has somehow survived the onslaught. Included among them is the father and son in the scenario that opened this review. In one of the film’s few conveniences, the father (Krasinski) is a skilled builder and good with electronics, so he’s been able to reshape the family compound into a survivor’s camp, although not one that’s impenetrable to the alien menace.

With this in mind, the father, mother and their three children live as quietly as possible. They play Monopoly with tokens made out of yarn; they walk on the painted portions of floorboards, which don’t creak; and they pray silently before meals.

One of my gripes about mainstream films is the blunt force nature of the exposition. Instead of telling a story with images, characters often narrate the plot to each other using the kind of expository dialogue no one speaks in the real world:

Wife: “Have a nice day designing buildings at the architecture firm, dear. Here’s a cup of decaf for the road. You know what the doctor said about keeping your blood pressure down since the firm that’s run by your former best friend in college started going after your top clients.”

Husband: “Thank you. Good luck today. I hope you get the promotion to vice president of the advertising firm where you’ve worked for five years.”

But in “A Quiet Place,” Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, lacks the convenience of dialogue and must tell the story visually. He does a masterful job.

There’s the way the mother, played by Krasinski’s real-life spouse, Emily Blunt, slowly straightens a fallen bottle of pills to keep it from clattering. There’s the physical intensity of a silent argument between the father and his teenage daughter. And there’s the paralyzing moment of fear when someone does accidentally make a sound.

One of the things I admire about “A Quiet Place” is how it conveys the nature of the relationships between its characters without words. For instead, the daughter blames herself for a tragic loss early in the film and withdraws. The father does his best to draw her back but it’s not easy.

Somehow, the family dynamics other movies impart through the use of dialogue are made just as clear through non-verbal means. This is a family in which the father and mother love each other and will go to great lengths to protect their children. It is also a family for whom most viewers will care deeply.

You’ve probably heard about how the hearing of a blind person is heightened to make up for the lack of sight. People who see “A Quiet Place” will experience the opposite: their hearing impaired, their eyesight will become keener. Knowing this, Krasinski simply shows things and trusts his viewers will figure things out on their own.

For example, I quickly noticed the mother is pregnant. “Uh oh,” I thought. “Babies cry. How’s that going to work?”

Krasinski and his co-writers use this revelation and other subtle building blocks to create a world of frightening possibilities and then fashion several nail-biting, gut wrenching scenes of suspense out of the clay.

One in particular is so well-conceived and executed, it might be remembered years from now in same revered tones as the shower scene in “Psycho.” (Coincidentally, both sequences involve a woman in a bathtub.)

“A Quiet Place” is a rare genre film that doesn’t waste an ounce of its premise. All of the horror you can imagine bubbling out of the toxic hellstew of an alien-infested world without sound does. But the focus remains on the impact those events have on the characters and the efforts of the family to survive. In the end, “A Quiet Place” is as gut-wrenchingly emotional as it is terrifying.

“A Quiet Place” is a minor masterpiece. Skeptics might scoff at the notion of a sci-fi horror flick being considered a vital piece of cinema, but its use of silence to not just create tension and atmosphere but also to define characters establishes it as a bold and original work. Between this and “Annihilation,” 2018 is shaping up to be a banner year for genre films.