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My 12 for ’18: Quiet Please in “A Quiet Place”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number eleven.

Much has been made of A Quiet Place as an old-fashioned horror throwback, and justifiably so.

There is a lot to like about A Quiet Place, especially for audiences who are maybe a little cynical about the modern cinematic landscape. It is an original property. It is not a sequel, reboot, prequel or remake. It is not even based on a book or a comic. It does not exist as part of a shared universe. It is not a story drowned out by the cacophony of end-of-the-world stakes. It is not a story that struggles under the weight on unnecessary exposition. It is a solid, mid-tier, old-fashioned horror film. It is the kind of respectable mainstream genre film that doesn’t really exist anymore.

However, there is something that separates A Quiet Place from the year’s other nostalgic prestige horror offerings like Hereditary. Hereditary was a film that largely succeeded as a nostalgic throwback to the classic horror films of the seventies, tapping into the same fears of familial dissolution as Don’t Look Now or The Exorcist. In contrast, A Quiet Place is a thoroughly modern film. It is a movie that very much reflects the modern world, although not necessarily in terms of theme or story. Indeed, trying to work out the politics of A Quiet Place is bound to be an exercise in frustration.

Instead, A Quiet Place is a modern film in the way that it engages overtly with and makes the characters complicit in the act of watching a horror movie. It is a horror film that is consciously designed in order to heighten and emphasise the manner in which people watch films.

As with every movie on this list, I have seen A Quiet Place multiple times. The first time I saw it was in a crowded cinema with an excited audience. As somebody who attends a lot of evening screenings, I understand the push-and-pull attraction that the multiplex has for audiences. When it’s good, there are few experiences as exhilarating as allowing the audience’s reaction to wash over you. There is a solid argument for (where possible) watching comedies and horror movies with a large audience, as those audience reactions are a large part of what those movies are actually doing.

That said, going to the cinema can pose a challenge for people. Ignoring issues like rising ticket prices or the logistics involved in a trip to the cinema, the truth is that the experience is not always ideal. Most cinemas struggle to maintain a healthy profit margin with a skeleton staff, often leaving screenings unsupervised. Audiences can be noisy and unruly. It is not uncommon to catch audience members on their phones or to hear a running commentary. It is something that undercuts the romantic ideal of the cinema-going.

A Quiet Place is remarkable film in large part because it cuts through that. The first time that I saw it in a cinema, it was deathly silent. Even the rummaging through popcorn bags and sweet wrappers was silent. During the tense sequences, there were audible intakes of breath. Although you could feel the jump scares moving through the audience, the reactions were appreciably less vocal than they might usually be for a horror film. It is a remarkable experience, particularly in an era where cinema has made a choice to lean towards “experience” to compete with television.

Interestingly, the same thing happened when I watched the movie at home with my family. Glasses were placed more gently on tables, bags of crisps were approached as if they were trip mines. When a relative missed a piece of dialogue, the question was whispered for fear that it might somehow attract the monsters stalking through the film. A Quiet Place is a surprisingly participatory horror movie, even when watched in intimate surroundings.

Screaming is an essential part of watching horror movies, an act of catharsis when presented with something monstrous and grotesque. The beauty of A Quiet Place lies in how it denies the audience and the characters that sense of relief, and so this heightens the experience. It is a celebration of that part of movie-watching, to the point that the entire premise of the film flows from the horror of being trapped in a horror movie where screaming will result in immediate death.

This reflects a larger trend in contemporary horror, perhaps a reflection of a larger postmodernism in modern pop culture. Increasingly, horror movies weaponise the experience of watching horror movies. Steven Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is a great example of this. Blink featured monsters that could only move when the audience was not looking, weaponising the classic trope of “hiding behind the sofa.” In The Snowmen, thinking about the monster summoned that monster. In The Impossible Astronaut, the characters only remembered the monster when they could see them.

There have been a number of recent horror films that play on similar conventions. Lights Out featured a monster that could only move in the dark, and so goaded the audience into watching the creature rather than flinching or looking away. Slender Man featured a monster that was attracted to minds that had been made aware of his existence, so thinking about him summoned him. Bird Box featured a threat that the characters could not actually look at, effectively deriving a horror movie from the act of looking away from the screen.

A Quiet Place is perhaps less overt than these examples, in that it is the most simplistic and straightforward in its premise. After all, the isolated family is a classic horror movie trope. It is less winking and knowing in its execution, never smirking or breaking. It is structured like a very conventional horror movie, in a very conventional setting; rural America has long been stalked by monsters in genre fiction, and the end of the world is an increasingly popular setting.

However, the fact that a “back-to-basics” horror movie like A Quiet Place is so efficiently and effectively built around the cinematic experience of consuming horror movies suggests how reflexive and how recursive modern popular culture has become. A Quiet Place is not a literal recreation of an established character or property in the same way as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but it is a recreation of a familiar experience. It is film built around the urge to scream while watching a horror film, and which creates a situation that plays against that impulse.

A Quiet Place is a remarkable piece of film-making, in large part because it is a loving ode to film-watching.

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