The Terrorising Silence of A Quiet Place

Pop Culture

The Terrorising Silence of A Quiet Place

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

In John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, the latest entrant to Hollywood’s reinvigorated horror genre, silence assumes an indispensable mantle in the proceedings. In the apocalyptic frightfest, silence not only leads to survival – it is also the epicentre of the assaulting dread that encompasses the audience. It’s an odd stratagem for a film that falls under the survival horror genre, which has traditionally been defined by jarring sounds and jump scares used to infuse spine-curdling terror. Yet, A Quiet Place triumphs in daring to stray from this formulaic grammar of horror, revelling instead in marinating pin-drop silence with unimaginable fear.

The premise of this taut 95-minute creature feature is both simple and unique: A family of four – Lee (Krasinski), Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their two kids – fight a lone battle of survival in a world whose population has been decimated by a mysterious band of bloodthirsty alien monsters. Although completely blind, the aliens have an excellent sense of hearing; alert to any sound made by a living being, and hunting its source with razor-focused savagery. The only way to endure this invasion is by leading a completely silent life like Lee and his family.

The film begins months after the remaining inhabitants have hesitantly adapted to the rules of this unseen invasion. On their part, Lee and his family (comprising a deaf daughter played by Millicent Simmonds) have adopted every trick possible: they speak in sign language, walk barefoot, eat on plates of leaves, live in a secluded country farmhouse, and have pre-planned paths made of sand. It’s a world marked by the absence of crickets and birds chirping, where rats get killed while jumping across roofs, and Lee’s family is forced to mourn the cruel death of the youngest son… inaudibly.

The plot’s allowance for only sparse, sudden sounds ensures that A Quiet Place becomes a horror film punctuated by uncomfortably long bursts of silence instead of the screams of its unlucky protagonists. As a result, the audience feels obligated to afford uninterrupted attention to the rare sounds that comprise the largely silent film – like the loud shriek of an old man or the monstrous gurgle of the aliens.

By using sound judiciously, A Quiet Place ensures audiences don’t react to it carelessly and organically derives terror from the assault enforced on the senses of its viewers. It’s a vast difference from the assembly-line Hollywood flicks that seek to artificially manufacture horror by riding on the back of suggestively loud background scores and scarily enhanced visual cues. Much of the film’s eerie atmosphere depends on the audience feeling suffocated by the sea of deadly silence circling the protagonists, to the effect that they are afraid to make a sound offscreen.

By effectively using a synthesis of silence and sound in a horror film, A Quiet Place has revolutionised the way horror films can equip themselves with terror

In a recent interview, Erik Aadahal, one of the sound-designers of the film explained the challenge with a painting metaphor. “In a Rembrandt painting, or a beautiful Caravaggio painting, there’s a shaft of light made more beautiful by the darkness around it – that’s the negative space,” he said. “In a sense, sonically, silence is the negative space. It’s the valley that allows you to appreciate the peak.” On its part, the film milks this contrast by juxtaposing eerie silence with stunning bursts of sound (waterfalls, aliens, and voices) reminding us what most horror flicks tend to forget: Silence is golden when it comes to horror.

The finest evidence of the stripped-down survival drama’s quietude is its jaw-dropping labour scene. It comes right after a heavily pregnant Evelyn discovers that her water has broken while her husband and children are out of the house. As she alerts her husband with a SOS signal and makes her way to the bathtub to deliver her baby (Will he be killed by the aliens the minute he starts crying?), she steps on an upright nail that pierces through her foot, burying itself in it.

It’s a scene that guarantees that your heart races. For the shriek, and her inevitable death could come any second. Besides being visually stunning, the moment is a claustrophobic and ably executed study in tension. It’s also the finest evidence of a scene articulating sheer terror through silence followed by one of the most cathartic screams of the year.

By effectively using a synthesis of silence and sound in a horror film, A Quiet Place has revolutionised the way horror films can equip themselves with terror. And as we all know, nothing is scarier than silence.