The smarter, scarier horror movies know it’s not how much you show an audience but how little. “A Quiet Place” takes that maxim in a surprising direction: The tension in this movie — and it’s nearly unbearable at times — comes from how little we hear.
Or how little They hear. Who are They? After an opening scene that wordlessly tells us almost everything we need to know about a recent global apocalypse by showing a family of five creeping through a deserted supermarket, “A Quiet Place” reveals its ace. Earth has been overrun by large, skittering, carnivorous beasties. Sightless and befanged, they move like the wind and they’re drawn by the slightest sound. Best hush now, children.
Other movies might play this as an intercontinental epic, but under the tight, smart direction of actor John Krasinski, “A Quiet Place” is focused on one stressed-out family unit. And we’re right there with them. The central concept isn’t terribly original — with its lonesome-farmhouse setting and terrors lurking in the cornfields, the movie could pass as a fusion of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” (2002) and the drive-in classic “Tremors” (1990) — but Krasinski’s treatment of it is unadorned and fresh. The movie grabs you at the start and never lets go.
And, lord, is it quiet. Because the slightest word or scrape of the furniture will bring the critters running, the family has learned to live in eerie 24-7 silence. They have a head start, at least, since teenage daughter Regan is deaf (as is the actress who plays her, Millicent Simmonds, of the recent “Wonderstruck”), and the rest of the clan — father Lee (Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and younger brother Marcus (Noah Jupe) — are fluent in American Sign Language.
In a striking departure from the standard jet-engine clamor of most modern movies, “A Quiet Place” is a thing of stocking feet, meaningful glances, and objects placed on surfaces very very carefully. The effect on the audience at the screening I attended was nearly magical. No small talk. No cellphones. Just the sound of a full house holding its breath for 90 solid minutes.
Did I mention the mother is pregnant and due to give birth at any moment? Why would anyone bring a child into this world? is a question that may legitimately flit across your mind between bouts of shredding the armrests; so, in one critical scene, might be Where is all that water coming from? This is Krasinski’s third time out as a director and unquestionably his best effort, but he’s still more comfortable with the dread and atmospherics of individual scenes than in the mortar that holds a movie together. The geography of the farm is muddled. (Why are there two basements?) Certain developments occur because we need a certain sort of fright just then, not because they logically follow.
On the other hand, how much logic do you need in a suspense film this elegantly bare-boned? For the most part, Krasinski makes the basics feel iconic rather than generic: an out-of-focus shadow dashing across a hallway; a nail sticking up from a stair tread, waiting for an unwary foot. It’s a monster movie, sure, but the less we see of the monsters, the scarier they are. A sequence late in the film traps one of the characters in a flooded room with one of the creatures; when it slid underwater and out of sight, everyone at my screening let out an unearthly moan of happy terror.
Unlike many horror movies, “A Quiet Place” works because we care about the characters. The movie plays on our fondness for not only Krasinski, a Newton native who will forever be Jim from “The Office,” whether he likes it or not, but also for Blunt, his real-life wife and (next to Charlize Theron) the toughest woman in movies. Acted or real (or both), their affection grounds the film and makes the scares feel personal. Simmonds silently conveys her character’s grief, guilt, and rebellion, while Jupe, who was Matt Damon’s son in “Suburbicon” and Jacob Tremblay’s best friend in “Wonder,” has a wide-eyed mixture of courage and fear that feels just right.
The movie puts them through the wringer, and us, too, in a way that binds audiences into one — it’s a film best seen in a crowded theater rather than at home, amid the distractions. And when it’s time for his characters to finally let rip and scream, Krasinski has the confidence to know that we’ll do it for them. Listen up: This is a good one.
A QUIET PLACE
Directed by John Krasinski. Written by Krasinski, Bryan Woods, and Scott Beck. Starring Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 90 minutes. PG-13 (terror and some bloody images).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.