Sensory-based horror? So hot right now.
Netflix should know as well as anyone that the key to financial and cultural success in the horror realm is to choose one of the five senses…and then take it away. According to the streamer, approximately 96 trillion people watched the Sandra Bullock-starring Bird Box last year, in which characters were forced to avert their eyes lest they behold Eldritchian terrors that would drive them insane and suicidal.
Now Netflix is back with another sense-based post-apocalyptic project. In The Silence, based on a 2015 book of the same name by Tim Lebbon, a colony of bat like creatures has been unleashed upon the world and is ready to rip to shreds anyone unlucky enough to raise their voice above a whisper. The Silence has Bird Box’s strands of DNA scattered throughout it – from a hasty societal collapse to the concept of a hearing or vision loss being an advantage. It’s a “in the world the one-eyeds, the blind man is king” sort of thing.
Kiernan Shipka (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) stars as a young girl named Ally who lost her hearing in a car accident a few years prior to the film’s events. When the hearing-sensitive creatures have the world in their thrall, Ally and her family (which is made up of an impressive cast featuring the likes of Stanley Tucci, Mirana Otto, and John Corbett) have an inherent advantage as they know American sign language to assist their communication as they seek…a less noisy place.
And just like that, four paragraphs in, we’ve run into the large-eared monster in the room. The Silence’s premise sounds suspiciously like 2018 horror hit, A Quiet Place. Both movies feature families seeking to survive a world in which monsters will attack them if they make noise. The Silence de-mystifies the monsters quite early on, unlike A Quiet Place’s more ethereal beings but in practice the storytelling mechanics are largely the same: shut up and survive.
It’s worth pointing out that The Silence was casting its project back in May 2017, nearly a full year before A Quiet Place was released. This appears to be a case of Deep Impact/Armageddon-style Hollywood synchronicity more so than outright thievery. Still, The Silence is destined to be compared with its successful spiritual predecessor. I’ve not seen A Quiet Place so I can’t speak to as to whether The Silence is a pale imitation. I can, however, confirm, that it’s pale.
A lot of horror movies start out with an interesting premise before running out of steam. The Silence has the exact opposite tempo. The first act of The Silence is so lazy and uninspired that the very movie itself seems resentful for even having to exist. It’s the first act equivalent of a child being dragged downstairs to finish his broccoli. The cinematic sins of first act are legion: voiceover is unnecessarily introduced even though the characters’ dialogue is hilariously expository as is, tertiary characters are brought only to never be seen again, and characters act in frustratingly illogical fashion.
There’s a time-honored tradition amongst mediocre horror movie fans to begin rooting for the monsters after the protagonists have proven themselves to be unsympathetic, two-dimensional dopes. That moment in The Silence comes shockingly early on. The monsters, which come to be called “vesps,” may be skeletal-spiny ugly bats but all they really want is some god damned peace and quiet after being awoken from a long nap. If that’s not “Big Mood,” I don’t know what is.
The first act of The Silence is also marred by the casting of a very particular role. Shipka is a talented, ascendant actress but her inclusion as a hearing-impaired character puts both the actor and the viewer in a tough spot. When Shipka’s Ally verbally communicates for the first time, the audience has to brace itself to see if the movie will attempt the uncomfortable mistake of having Shipka approximate a “deaf voice.” She does not, likely because her character is recentlyimpaired, but still, why take the audience out of the movie to have to even consider it?
On a practical level as well, the viewer tends to watch Shipka to discern how natural and comfortable her sign language looks rather than how she embodies the character. Acting is a kind of communication between an audience and an actor, and in not casting a hearing-impaired actor in the role, The Silence puts Shipka and the viewer in an awkward place (An Awkward Place, if you will).
Still, casting mishaps and lazy first acts aside, The Silence is nowhere near a post-apocalyptic disaster. And I should know having seemingly exclusively reviewed Netflix’s horror and post-apocalyptic disasters. In fact, once The Silence actually gets around to telling the story it wants to tell, it does so rather capably. The Silence’s second half includes some legitimately inventive applications of its silent horror concept. Monsters are dispatched in creative ways and the characters show real competency and mettle when it comes to silent problem-solving. Even the now perfunctory “humans are the real monsters” villains are fairly interesting.
The problem is, The Silence’s own core competency comes far too long in the game…and we’re talking roughly 40 minutes into a 90-minute movie. And those remaining 50 minutes are so granularly focused as to not feel like a feature film at all. It feels more episodic than anything. In fact, most of The Silence feels episodic – right down to its bafflingly TV opening credits style intro, which look like a mashup of the True Blood and Doom Patrol openers.
If The Silence were in reality just DLC for A Quiet Place and re-edited into a streamlined, self-contained 45-minute package, it might be quite good. As things stand, however, The Silence is a compelling middle without a beginning or end.
The Silence is available to stream now on Netflix.