NB: The following contains spoilers for A Quiet Place.
As expensive films go increasingly for the blitzkrieg approach to entertainment, it makes sense that independent filmmakers consciously attempt to run in the opposite direction. It’s nigh-on impossible to compete with a Star Wars or Marvel flick on its own terms, but even a modestly-budgeted film can, in the hands of skilled storytellers, offer 90 minutes of compact, coiled intensity.
This might at least partly explain why we’ve seen something of a horror and thriller renaissance over the past few years, from the best of Blumhouse’s offerings – not least the Oscar-winning Get Out – to Steven Soderbergh’s fleet-footed mystery Unsane, famously shot on iPhones and packed with grainy paranoia.
Directed and co-written by John Krasinski, A Quiet Place isn’t exactly a no-budget thriller, but with its outlay amounting to just $18million, it was likely shot for roughly the price of Avengers: Infinity War’s catering trucks. But again, it favors ingenuity over pyrotechnics, and while the movie does contain a fair few effects sequences, its plot lies more heavily on performance, suspense, and an exacting use of sound to generate its suspense.
The story takes place in the near future, a matter of days after the arrival of a race of deadly, predatory monsters that appear to feed on humans. We’re left to glean the creatures’ origins from various background details, but their power is illustrated in a perfectly-judged opening sequence: a family of survivors forages through an abandoned convenience store, picking out supplies and walking on tiptoe. They talk in whispers, and occasionally in sign language – partly because the eldest daughter is deaf, but also because the monsters outside have superhuman hearing.
Although the creatures are barely seen for the film’s first half, A Quiet Place’s most immediate threat is sound itself. Krasinski savagely demonstrates the penalty for making a noise, and for much of the film, we’re left on a knife’s edge with the rest of the main characters.
The mother (superbly played by Emily Blunt) prepares dinner in silence, serving up smoked fish on wooden plates and no cutlery on the table. The father (John Krasinski) is in the basement, trying to contact other survivors on a ham radio and tinkering with electronics. Their son and elder daughter (Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds) play Monopoly with improvised counters, made from wool to minimise noise. Just to add to the air of dread, the camera picks out the mother’s pregnant belly – and we’re left to wonder how this beleaguered family can survive for more than a few hours with a screaming baby in the house.
Having so insistently established its premise – simply put: noise equals death – A Quiet Place spends 90 minutes exploring every murky corner of it. This is the kind of film where small details can also become big set-pieces, where a protruding nail or a pair of batteries and a child’s toy take on the significance of a ticking bomb. It’s all so superbly thought-out, its sound design so subtle one moment and cacophonous the next, that the plot’s more familiar elements barely register.
A Quiet Place is one of a number of recent movies that depict America as a mighty empire gone to seed. Like Interstellar, Hell Or High Water, and The Walking Dead, Kraskinski’s film takes place among wheat fields, dilapidated farmhouses and towns left to rust and moulder. Newspaper clippings describe the monsters as ‘Dark Angels’, and hint that they emerged from meteorites – like a medieval bad omen, perhaps, or a punishment from the gods. What was once the noisiest nation on Earth is suddenly reduced to a whisper.
But like Interstellar, there’s a hint of nostalgia to A Quiet Place’s apocalypse. The world may be falling apart, but it’s interesting how the script has an average middle-class family falling into their accepted roles: mother in the kitchen, father out doing technical things or catching fish. British author John Wyndham might have recognised this end-of-the-world scenario: the kids wear jumpers and style their hair like post-war kids; the daughter may have a strained relationship with her father, but she’s hardly a tearaway. Like Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids, A Quiet Place imagines a distinctly middle class tale of horror.
Still, there’s nothing old-fashioned about the filmmaking, which claws and growls at its audience like a hungry tiger. It’s hard to make a scary monster movie these days – just look at Prometheus – and even more so on a lean budget, but Strasinski makes remarkably light work of it. His beasts are all teeth and limbs, their flesh the colour of burned meat, their entire heads seemingly a multi-segmented ear. A Quiet Place’s suspense is brilliantly-wrought, and it’s to the film’s credit that, even when the monsters are brought into the middle of the stage, the sense of menace barely ebbs at all.
It’s often said that there’s a yawning gulf opening up between the most expensive movies and the cheapest, and that the middle-ground is in danger of vanishing altogether. Take Steven S. DeKnight, for example: he made his feature debut with the big-budget sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, but still plans to make the low-budget mystery-thriller he’s had in development for the past couple of years or so. As he told us earlier in 2018:
“Now you either have your micro-budget, Blumhouse model – which does fantastic work, I’m a big fan of what Jason Blum does – or you go straight to $90 million. The middle movie – especially that middle-budget human drama, without visual effects or action, really seems to have gone by the wayside.”
Veteran director Rob Cohen, who recently brought us the daffy thriller Hurricane Heist, concurs:
“I think they [studios] feel that under five, like I did on The Boy Next Door, or any of the Blumhouse films, they have the chance of a breakout that will be vastly profitable. And the next level where they think they have something marketable is up at $150 million and beyond. That’s because the kinds of films they’re trying to make depend on so much hardware and software to create. They don’t think anything is marketable that doesn’t have all those bells and whistles.”
While there’s little doubt that mid-budget movies are an endangered species (or at least, increasingly heading to entities like Netflix), it’s also fascinating to see how filmmakers are finding ways to do more with less.
Digital cameras and the falling price of CGI mean low-budget films can look and sound more polished than ever before. Just look at the gorgeous photography and mesmeric use of colour in an indie gem like Catch Me Daddy, or the Brian De Palma-like camera work in It Follows.
A couple of decades ago, a thriller like Unsane might have ended up as a $30 million, mid-budget vehicle for Ashley Judd; instead, Steven Soderbergh (and a perfectly-cast Claire Foy) use the resources at their disposal to make something far more memorable and rough edged. Had Unsane been glossier, it probably wouldn’t have worked even half as well.
Soderbergh isn’t the only established, respected director who’s dialled back on the finances to make a movie over the past year or so. Consider Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning Shape Of Water, a fairytale horror-romance made for a shade under $20 million – considerably less than the director’s previous film, Crimson Peak. In our interview last year, del Toro admitted that he had a difficult time making The Shape Of Water on such a tight budget, but the results are plain to see: it’s a lovingly-made, beautiful looking film. And in retrospect, even del Toro says he wishes he could have made Crimson Peak in a similarly pared-back fashion:
“If I could go back in time with Crimson Peak, I would it make it for $20 million. Because then I put the studio in a better position to market it as a gothic romance. They only need to make $60 million, you know what I’m saying? But if I make it for $55 million, I put the studio in an impossible position to make $155 million, and they have to market it as a horror movie. So it’s not their fault – it’s me creating a situation that is untenable for them. The solution is, can we make those movies for a number that is reasonable? $30 million, under 30, under 20. That’s why Shape Of Water looks like it’s $60 million but it’s made for $19.5. It’s not a big-budget movie.”
Although A Quiet Place is a very different movie from The Shape Of Water, it’s interesting that the budget hovers around the $19 million mark – and while Krasinski says the figure was difficult to work with, it also gave everyone working on the movie added focus:
“…there is definitely more benefit than trauma with this tight budget and tight schedule. It is that indie vibe of people just bringing A-game every single second of every single day. Whereas with the bigger budgets, I’ve witnessed it, and I’ve possibly been a participant of it, where if you just sit back on your heels even just a little bit more, then things take longer. You might still get the same product, but that leaning in, and having every single person crashing at the end of the day, when you’re in it, you think it’s an absolute prison sentence. And then when you get out of it, you go, ‘I think that’s why the movie’s so good.’”
All of this partly explains why there’s such a wayward, stripped-down energy at play in A Quiet Place.
Think of it this way: Pitch Black, a sci-fi horror movie from the turn of the millennium, cost about $23 million to make. A Quiet Place had $17 million to play with. The middle ground may be gone, but the best filmmakers are using the money they have to extraordinary effect. Like its protagonists, A Quiet Place has dirt under its fingernails, and is all the better for it.