Senseless horror: Critical reviews of “A Quiet Place” and “Bird Box” (2018)

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.

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Heavy handed horror?: Critical reviews of “Annihilation” and “Unsane” (2018)

When a film is particularly unusual, it’s very common to grasp at what’s similar to it in order to come to grips with what it is. The fairly unusual sci fi thriler “Annihilation” got this treatment, getting compared to “Under the Skin,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the original “Solaris,” as well as personal favorite “The Fountain.” One film that didn’t come up a lot was the “Ghostbusters” reboot, a film that was surprisingly polarizing and decidedly controversial, both for its female cast and its social media handling.

“Annihilation” (written and directed by Alex Garland, the “Ex Machina” dude) spins a weird tale, part cosmic horror and part philosophical sci fi drama, of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who is volunteers to investigate the “Shimmer,” an alien world that has mysteriously sprouted up on Earth. The exploratory team–all women–includes a medic, a physicist and, perhaps tellingly, a psychologist. All are aware that no team has returned alive from the “Shimmer.” What they aren’t aware of is Lena’s own connection to the place.

So why the comparison to “Ghostbusters”? After all, “Annihilation” is an infamously obscure film, almost an art film, and “Ghostbusters” is a popcorn flavored reboot. However, for better or worse, the all female leads make it easy to draw uneasy parallels. It might not be a powerful point of entry, but it’s worth some examination.

This blog speculated on “Ghostbusters” when it was still in production, and we’re sorry to say we were right to speculate. As a horror film, it wasn’t scary; as a comedy, it fared a little better, but there was a self consciousness to it that was wholly unnecessary. There was a lot of hand holding in the script, something it didn’t need to worry about. The film’s leads were all experienced comedy alums. Rather than worry about them being funny, the script should have spent a little more time giving the film an identity outside of its cast.

Despite also featuring excellent actors, “Annihilation” did not suffer the same problems, in no small part because there is so much else going on for it than its mono-chromosome casting–psychological and philosophical themes, genuine tension, even its intriguing design. In fact, although a variety of reviewers did comment on the film’s female leads, they were just as likely to talk about its alien beauty and impenetrable plot.

“Annihilation” did very little to remind you that its cast was most female, and in doing so, avoided a lot of female stereotypes it could have walked into. It had other things to talk about, and it preferred treating its characters like people rather than props. The film even made a quick comment on it. When the team realizes it’s been codified, Lena notes it’s comprised of “all women.” The team physicist, Tessa Thompson’s Josie Radek, adds: “Scientists.” Enough said.

Another film that was as impressive in its handling of its themes as its execution was “Unsane,” director Steven Soderbergh’s psychological horror flick about a young woman (Claire Foy) who has relocated to evade a stalker. After a therapy session, she inadvertently checks herself into a mental health facility. When she tries to leave, she realizes she cannot because she signed a waiver to stay. And when she thinks she sees her stalker working there, her behavior only grows more erratic, and the staff is even less likely to let her leave.

“Unsane” was shot by Soderbergh on an iPhone 7 and edited on an app, which fits its claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere perfectly. It would have been easy for the film to be all about the technology, and indeed, a lot of critical attention was lavished on how good it looked considering its compact genesis. But critics were just as liable to latch onto the solid performance by Foy (who, believe it or not, we have talked about before–why is this article becoming an exercise in blog nostalgia?). All this is saying nothing about the film’s themes.

Mental instability and horror go hand in hand. It’s a given that you’ll touch on crazy in a psychological horror film, but it’s hardly a given that you’ll do it well. Films that try to handle mental illness sensitively, or at least intelligently, are rare–Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” perhaps stick out as movies that make an effort at authenticity. “Unsane” can join their ranks not only for looking at mental illness, but also for looking at the mental health system.

“Unsane” tackles the issue of mental illness not only from the patient’s perspective, but from a bureaucratic–and insurance–point of view as well. People do indeed get lost in the mental health system, and that can be just as serious for the afflicted as the notion that what they see might not be seen by everyone else.

But what ultimately anchors “Unsane” is that, by the end of the film, it is a well made thriller. An interesting technological experiment, of course, and an earnest effort at exploring an often overlooked element of mental illness in cinema, but an engaging thriller throughout.

If “Annihilation” curiously recalls “Ghostbusters,” then “Unsane” recalls “Get Out,” another thriller with a social conscious. The difference is that, while both films handled their social issues intelligently and organically, “Get Out” started to enter rather ridiculous territory in its third act while “Unsane” maintained its nature through its climax. Perhaps it all comes down to confidence. While all these films had their subjects in hand, “Annihilation” and “Unsane” felt certain enough in themselves to let their themes do the talking while the films played out.