Scary movies are profoundly polarizing. You either enjoy being made to feel unsafe in the world for two hours, or you abhor it and wonder why anyone would willingly submit to it, given how scary real life can be all on its own. Fright films radically simplify human affairs, keeping you plugged into a current of dire anticipation as they reduce their characters—and you—to the rudiments of animal survival. The appeal is not to your soul, but to your central nervous system.
The cinematic means of doing this are many, and each aficionado has his or her preference. I like stalker films well enough; bloodfests leave me cold, and I loathe movies that showcase sadism and sheer physical cruelty, like the detestable Saw franchise. Best are thrillers that draw suspense out, propelling us into a delirium of dread anticipation. (The deft genius of The Blair Witch Project was to do this for an entire film, with no reveal.) I favor movies that make you feel enclosed and entrapped, with evil close by—like 2014’s The Babadook, or Neil Marshall’s 2005 spelunking nightmare, The Descent, in which a group of women lose their way in a cave populated by ghouls. Such films evoke fearfulness via an art of amplification. How much anxiety can be leveraged with the smallest increment of danger?
A Quiet Place is a mishmash of genres, combining survivalist saga, dystopian futurism, sci-fi, horror, and thriller. Boil up a mix of Mad Max and Planet of the Apes; toss in some 28 Days Later; spice with The Descent; sprinkle with a little M. Night Shyamalan; and pour over a bed of Jeremiah Johnson and Swiss Family Robinson. The film takes a moving family and marital story, surrounds it with hideous imminent peril, then adds one shrewd formal innovation that ups the suspense, even as it conduces to unexpected thoughtfulness about human nature and society.
There’s a basic moxie in any director’s putting John Krasinski front-and-center in a fright film. Remember him—the ever-smiling guy who played a quizzical younger counterpart to Steve Carell in the American version of The Office? Krasinski’s character was your cute little brother who you can’t believe is suddenly twenty-five years old and six-foot-two. Not an obvious choice for horror, but Krasinski also directed this movie, so he can do as he pleases. A bushy beard now covers the boyish grin, helping equip the actor to play Lee Abbott, a thirty-something dad forced by dire necessity into the role of survivalist. The year is 2020, and we are fifteen months into the grim aftermath of an invasion, or infestation, of giant human-devouring creatures, whose freakish speed and bottomless appetite equips them to complete a bloody grab-and-gobble faster than you can say Ouch! Amid the vestiges of civilization, surviving families hide in the desolate countryside, living off the land and squatting in the abandoned farms and houses of those who have been killed, while trying to evade the grisly fate that befell them.