A Quiet Place both cements and builds on the tradition of sound’s pure power in a horror film from a technical, narrative and even an existential view.
Hearing is undoubtedly the second most primitive sense which can be accessed through cinema as an art. It takes a fraction of a second for a sound wave to worm its way into our ears and vibrate our eardrums, and next travel through the fluid in our cochlea, ultimately making its way to our auditory cortex, where it is translated into relevant sensory information.
In the process of that translation into relevant sensory input, the brain has quite a lot of other things it has to sift through to at least attempt to accurately translate what the sound means. Is it coupled with visual information? What’s its pitch? Where and when did it happen? But most importantly: what does this sound mean to me in the context in which I heard it? A calculation that happens in milliseconds and can cause a whole plethora of different emotions and reactions. Indeed, these calculations are vital for our survival in the world in many ways: helping us to do things like navigate potentially dangerous situations and avoid danger altogether.
No art (excepting music) taps into this cavalcade of neural-sensory effects quite like film — even during the silent era, as theaters utilized orchestra pits, theater pianists, or theater organists, to play a film’s original score while it showed on the screen above them. Yet, how does film do this on a more focused and micro view? Furthermore, how does John Krasinski probe the consequences of sound in his horror opus A Quiet Place?
Horror is a great genre-based case study to use to examine the consequences of sound in movies and the tremendous tradition of what has been done with that. Instant associations are triggered by merely mentioning in text the theme to Jaws, as the shark sneaks up on a bubbly teenage girl in the water; how about the keyboard motifs (and variations) of Michael Myers in Halloween or Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, both of which almost always play as the villains stalk around the set and knife the characters? How about the sweeping gothic fatalism which frames the atmosphere of the opening Rocky Mountain scene of The Shining?
If you aren’t already hearing all of these in your head — and I hope you are — I have embedded footage from all these movies below. I encourage you to watch them with sound and then playing them again after muting your speakers to see what these scenes are like without their sounds.
Alfred Hitchcock once said of Bernard Herrmann’s legendary minimalist strings score to Psycho that it was “33% of the effect” of the movie. Hitch summarily boosted Herrmann’s pay for work on Psycho after that.
Indeed, 33% was likely a hyperbolic understatement, intended to show just how important the consequences of sound were to the final story of Norman Bates, horror as a genre, and indeed cinema as a whole. Psycho is in many ways THE archetype for horror film sound because of that minimalist frenetic score with shrill strings oh so emblematic of the knife Bates uses on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower.
Generally speaking, every film has two types of sound: “diegetic” and “non-diegetic”. Diegetic sound refers to any sound that is presented as originating within the film itself, like a gunshot when a character pulls the trigger.
Non-diegetic sound has no visible on-screen source nor is the source of it implied in the film. Soundtracks would fit the bill here.
A Quiet Place quite brilliantly probes the consequences of sound in both its narrative and technical structures through the use of diegetic sound. But it also does much more. What would happen if that most primitive sense that helps us navigate the world were precisely what would get us killed?
The situation which forms the narrative core of A Quiet Place may seem a bit tired but this is not the reason to watch the film anyway. A family must navigate the world as a wasteland after gigantic blind creatures take it over and kill most everyone in the process. While their sight may be gone, the creatures hunt using their insanely fine-tuned hearing.
As the film’s tagline says, “If they hear you, they hunt you.” This is the narrative device which really forms the brilliance of A Quiet Place — what happens when one of our main ways of navigating the world becomes something that can literally kill us?
Krasinski explores the idea in a truly interesting way through having his characters use sign language. Yet he also navigates us through a roller-coaster ride of tension in the film, through the use of all kinds of diegetic sound and manipulating the fact that sound is happening at all — think of something loud like a child’s toy nearly falling, as an example. These things also add an interesting level of experimentation to A Quiet Place that would’ve made film-makers like Hitchcock very proud and awestruck.
These devices and the consequences of sound more broadly in A Quiet Placecreate a whole other level of tension beyond what normally happens in a horror film. This while tapping into and greatly innovating on that incredible tradition of the consequences of sound in a horror piece. It will hopefully be a treat to see what the second film does with the consequences of sound.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: email@example.com as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.