Successful horror films are often based on very simple ideas—implausible, perhaps, but likely to grab you and hold you for a short ride despite the likelihood that you’re noticing the holes in the narrative. That was the case, for example, with the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street”—he’ll kill you in your dreams, so don’t fall asleep!—and now with John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place,” which merely says: they’ll get you if you make a sound, so don’t! That fact that it’s also a well-played family drama adds a welcome touch of authentic emotion to the mix.
The picture establishes the premise economically in an opening sequence, which finds the Abbotts—dad Lee (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt), daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), older son Marcus (Noah Jupe) and younger son Beau (Cade Woodward)—going through the shelves of an otherwise deserted drugstore in a completely deserted town, searching for, among other things, medicine for Marcus, who’s suffering from some unexplained ailment. They pad about in stocking feet to avoid making noise.
But little Beau nearly causes a disaster when he spies a toy aircraft high on a shelf and scrambles to grab it. Lee tells him, via the sign language the family is comfortable with because Regan is deaf, that the battery-operated toy is “too loud,” but in a gesture of comfort Regan sneaks it to the boy, who then sneaks the batteries into his pocket. On the way home, over the trail of soft ash Lee has laid along the path, the boy reinserts the batteries and begins playing with the device, leading to the first, swift appearance of a ravenous alien creature. What happens in the attack won’t be revealed here, but one can note that when a horror movie does in its first scene what Krasinski’s does here, it’s declaring itself a serious horror flick, not a jokey send-up. (Refer back to Guillermo del Toro’s “Mimic” for another example.)
“A Quiet Place” follows up this opening scene, identified as happening simply on “Day 89,” by jumping ahead more than a year. Lee putters about a basement workshop, keeping watch on a bank of monitors that survey the area around their farm, accumulating data about the creatures and trying to make a hearing aid for Regan. Evelyn is pregnant and near her due date, but continues to keep the household in order. The children try to have some fun playing board games. But inevitably there are noisy accidents that bring unwanted attention from the creatures, and Regan is irritated when Lee insists that Marcus, not she, accompany him on fishing expeditions to fill the family larder, though she’s older. It’s the old question of sibling rivalry: whom does daddy love best?
Everything comes to a head one fateful day when Lee and Marcus are out, Regan wanders off on a mission of her own, and Evelyn’s water breaks. But that’s not all: a sharp nail protruding from stairs to the basement, a corn silo rather inexplicably still filled with grain, an old pickup with an operating emergency brake and an elderly couple living nearby will all contribute to bring about a noble act of self-sacrifice and a twist that points to the way in which the creatures can be defeated. The film ends with one of those crisply decisive highs that are designed to send the audience to the exits in a satisfied mood.
Prior to that close, though, Krasinski specializes in expertly-choreographed suspense sequences, edited skillfully by Christopher Tellefsen, in which the creatures—ugly beasts whose heads boast large ears, and emit crackling sounds as they move about—are revealed in ever-greater detail as they stalk their potential victims. Well shot by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, these are calculated to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, and they mostly succeed, even if the ability to suspend disbelief is strained almost to the breaking point by the close.
There’s not much explanatory content to the movie. The intent behind the alien invasion is never revealed (apart from killing off all living things, of course), and though Lee’s unsuccessful efforts to contact areas around the globe by shortwave suggest that the Abbott household is the last outpost of humanity, that is never made clear. (There is that neighboring couple, after all—how many others remain?) Exactly how the creatures’ radar works remains muddy: why are they attracted to the sound of a mechanical toy or a scraping metal door, but not to that of a waterfall or a rushing river?
Such questions probably won’t bother you, even if you find yourself asking them while the movie is running, simply because of the canniness of the basic premise and the aplomb with which Krasinski executes it. He and Blunt—his real-world wife—add texture to characters that, to be honest, are awfully sketchy on the page, and young Simmonds (so fine in “Wonderstruck”), Jupe (from “Suburbicon” and “Wonder”) and Woodward make an appealing and sympathetic trio of siblings.
“A Quiet Place” isn’t an earth-shaking addition to the horror genre, but it’s a good example of what a clever concept can achieve when slickly rendered. But please, Paramount, don’t do with it what you did with “Paranormal Activity.” Don’t try to turn it into a franchise.