On its most basic level, horror engages the senses. We watch a horror flick and our skins creep and our hearts race, all inspired by the sights and sounds onscreen. The clichés are clichés because they work, from creaky doors to rotting faces suddenly filling the screen. So imagine this blog’s surprise when two films–well publicized ones at that–came out last year that each sought to remove one of our trusted horror sensations from us.
This blog is hardly the first place that noted the synchronicity of last year’s “A Quiet Place” and “Bird Box.” In fact, people have argued “Bird Box” ripped off “A Quiet Place” because it came out later, or that “Quiet Place” was the ripper offer because the book “Bird Box” came out before either of them. But who ripped off who isn’t the point. I mean, they both probably ripped off the Frittening of Shetland Islands folklore. Or something. I don’t know. The point is how these films utilized their novel approaches to horror movie making.
Summer blockbuster “A Quiet Place” removes our ability to hear each other when a race of animalistic and eternally hungry aliens crash land on earth. Invincible, for all intents and purposes, and attracted by sound, they wipe out Earth’s defenses in weeks. Now, a pregnant woman (Emily Blunt), her husband (John Krasinski, who also directed and wrote the film) and their children are one isolated family struggling to survive silently in the aftermath of the invasion.
Netflix holiday fare “Bird Box” also concerns a mother (Sandra Bullock) who is trying to get her creatively named children–“Boy” and “Girl”–to an alleged safe haven in a world where society has fallen apart. The catch is they have to do it blindfolded because they are being stalked by monstrous entities that, as soon as looked at, either drive one insane or drive one to suicide.
The similarities between the films seem rather obvious. Both are post-apocalyptic horror films with a female lead, a splash of motherhood and the well-handled weight of guilt. But this ain’t “Rosemary’s Baby.” The real bridge between the two is the way they play with the senses: sound in “Quiet” and sight in “Bird.”
In theory, this is nothing new. Horror films grow still to surprise us with a shocking sound, and they withhold the appearance of the monster to build suspense. One could argue that “Quiet” is actually using a very old tactic, unfolding like a silent film. And, if one wanted to be cheeky, one could say that “Bird” is just riffing on the “Eye of the Beholder” episode of the original “Twilight Zone.” But I digress.
In practice, each of the films takes its tactics to an extreme, and they both do so rather ingeniously. “Quiet” doesn’t just shock us with sudden sound; it delves into what a world devoid of noise would look like, from carpeted everything and sizzle-free cooking to a very creative use of fireworks. Likewise, “Bird” is about more than don’t look–don’t look–scream! It shows us squabbling survivors blacking out windows as they try to figure out how to avoid an enemy they never want to see.
Where the films really start to differ is in execution. “Quiet” is the smoother operator. The monster design is solid, Krasinski’s camera is solid (cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Chistensen), Blunt’s necessarily physical performance is fantastic and veteran horror composer Marco Beltrami’s score has an appropriately classic feel.
“Bird” is a little less engaging. Bullock’s character is not an easy person to get to know, and her development, either by design or delivery, is somewhat stagnant. Perhaps that’s the point, given she’s had to toughen up to survive the apocalypse and everything, but it still makes for murky viewing. Oddly enough, the supporting cast (John Malkovich, B. D. Wong, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, pretty much everyone else) express more despite appearing less.
Also, “Bird” can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a dystopian sci fi or a psychological horror film, and accordingly, it never packs quite the punch you would expect. “Quiet,” on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable being a monster movie, although it gets a little too comfortable at the end. Still, even someone easy to disappoint–like me–can put up with a single exaggerated shotgun pump after 89 minutes of effectively tense horror.
From a technique standpoint, there is a clear difference. It is this blog’s boringly repeated opinion that movies are a visual art form. Anything that remembers, enhances and utilizes that is fine film making; anything that detracts or withholds that—particularly for the duration of a film—is probably not. Accordingly, wrapping the camera lens in fabric is an interesting gimmick, but robbing an audience of dialogue and focusing on tense and tender images is far more cinematically satisfying.