A Quiet Place (2018)

Directed by: John Krasinksi Written by: Brian Woods, Scott Beck and Krasinski

A_Quiet_Place_film_poster       A Quiet Place: it sounds like a metaphorical title, but its actually quite literal. This film is a simple horror story that documents the life of a family as it hides from a monster that comes to kill anyone who makes a discernible sound. The title is also a commentary on film aesthetics. A common difference between indie and big budget films, is that indie work often allow everyday sounds: footsteps on floors, pies being eaten, etc to be heard. In A Quiet Place this aesthetic trait has practical ramifications. Every time viewers hear the faint sound of an object being placed on a table they are left to wonder whether that sound was too loud: whether the monster is coming.

As a work of horror, A Quiet Place is huge success. Viewers are conditioned to be afraid of sound, and sound is everywhere: listen to the theatre goer behind you kicking on your seat. On the other hand, the film’s horrifying-aura is sometimes forced. Despite employing an indie soundscape, A Quiet Place also makes prominent use of a soundtrack. In one instance, the father, Lee (John Krasinksi) and his son Marcus (Noah Jupe) run into what we soon discover is a source of danger. Rather than letting the danger emerge in due course, the film instantly alerts us to its presence with eerie music.

Such forced horror moments are symptomatic of a broader problem with A Quiet Place: it sits in a no-man’s land between indie and big budget horror. Indie horror films, like It Comes at Night (as well as post-horror films like A Ghost Story) often make simple-narrative structures work. It Comes at Night barely features a literal monster. Instead, it develops a unique, chilling quality through its portrayal of paranoid, hierarchal family dynamics. A Ghost Story’s simplicity works because, well, simplicity is its point. It is about loss and mortality, two sources of pain that simply cannot be overcome. The universal simplicity of this pain is amplified by A Ghost Story’s simple structure.

A Quiet Place, however, is not like these films. The antagonist in the film is a literal monster, and the key to defeating the monster is not an act with deeper meaning: it is a specific, technological solution. The result is that even as A Quiet Place is satisfyingly scary and its characters are pleasantly portrayed, it can still leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed. It does not have a clever plot twist, nor does it cleverly omit a plot twist. It is simply a story in which a scary entity exists and the relatively ordinary characters have to find a way to overcome it.

Perhaps one external factor that enriches A Quiet Place, however, is its relationship to It Comes at Night. Both are horror films that forgo depictions of friend groups in favour of families. As I noted at the time of its release, some called It Comes at Night a depiction of a patriarchy. Indeed it is a film in which a family is led by a tough, no-nonsense father, and the father’s lack of sentimentality is a key element of that film’s horror aesthetic. A Quiet Place‘s world, by contrast, can be characterized as patriarchy-lite. The mother, Evelyn, (Emily Blunt) is supposedly a doctor, and she appears to be in an egalitarian relationship with her husband. Nonetheless, there also appears to be a gendered division of labor in the film’s family, as seen for instance when the father takes his son out on an expedition, leaving his strong-willed daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) behind. Bearded, and always in control, Krasinki’s character bears superficial resemblance to Joel Edgerton’s father-character in It Comes at Night. In this way, the two films complement each other. In It Comes at Night the “good” father can be as “Scary” as the evil “it.” In A Quiet Place Lee is unequivocally good but, I at least, couldn’t help but be unsettled by his presence.

A Quiet Place is an unsettling work. It is also unique in its heavy reliance on American Sign Language, used both to evade the monster and because Regan (like her portrayer) is deaf. In short, it’s very much worth seeing: it’s just missing a little extra something in the narrative creativity department.

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A Ghost Story (2017)

Written and Directed by: David Lowery

A_Ghost_Story_poster

In my last entry I discussed the supposedly emerging genre of “highbrow horror”: a description for horror films that: a) receive critical acclaim and b) often avoid depicting visually scary monsters, opting instead to portray invisible and/or human antagonists. David Lowery’s Ghost Story takes the cinematic development a step further. Not only does he avoid depicting an outwardly scary ghost (he goes for sheet-with-hole minimalism), but he throws out the concept of horror all together.

Viewers are thus left with a movie like no other. The ghost’s minimalist-Halloween-style garb makes it instantly loveable, yet eerie, nonetheless. How come this character who appears just to be a man in a sheet can’t just take his sheet off? He is so close to being alive, yet absolutely dead. Simultaneously sympathetic and unsettling the ghost is neither Casper nor [insert name of actually scar ghost here]. Rather, it is the protagonist of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”:

 

If you could read my mind/What a tale your thoughts could tell/just like an old time movie/bout a ghost in a wishing well/in a castle dark/or a fortress strong with chains upon my feet/you know that ghost is me/for I will never be set free, so long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see.

 

It would be hard to say more about Ghost Story’s plot without spoiling the narratively simple film. What I can say is the work finds its beauty in it simplicity. Death is tragic, and Ghost Story simply reintroduces us to this tragedy by showing it from the perspective of the dead in addition to the perspective of the mourner. From there, viewers are given a lot of leeway to read the story is a more or less detailed manner. Lowery’s conception of ghosthood is as a temporary state. Not all of the dead (necessarily) return as ghosts: only those who have unfinished business. The central ghost, however, does not seemingly have a profound objective to attend to such as righting a wrong he has done or fighting some force of evil. Rather his unfinished business seems to be coming to terms with never getting to see his wife again, and the sadness he felt about her desire for them to move out of their house. As someone who can feel deep nostalgia for spaces (houses, streets, shops, etc) I could particularly appreciate that this was the unfinished business the ghost had to attend to. For other viewers, the particulars of the ghost’s objective may be less important, but the underlying emotions behind the stories should prove just as captivating.

To see a grown man walking around dressed in a sheet is to see the boy-in-the-man. To see a figure permanently clad in a sheet is to see something terrifying. To watch a man die, seemingly come back from the dead, but to have this miracle be for nought since no one can see him is heartbreaking. Ghost Story gives viewers a chance to be mesmerized by profound sadness, eased down with the teaspoon of sugar that is the ghost costume. Whether you seek such emotional stimulus or whether you simply want to experience innovative art, Ghost Story is absolutely worth seeing.

“Horror” May be a Lowbrow Genre: but Genre is a Lie:

A Response to James’ Granger’s Toronto Star Op-Ed

It_Follows_(poster)On July 22nd, the front page of the Toronto Star entertainment section featured a small picture of a terrified Chris from Get Out, topped with the headline “Horror films are at heart lowbrow art”. As someone whose relationship to film has been nurtured by the recent emergence of “highbrow” horror, I decided to challenge my views and check out the op-ed. The side of me that wanted to have my views criticized was left disappointed.

The first half of the article builds up to being a critique of Get Out (and It Follows, and potentially other recent highbrow horror highlights). We learn that the critic, James Granger, sees the films as unoriginal—“The Stepford Wives substituting race relations for feminism.” He then makes an unrelated critique of It Follows, saying the film abandons (what he interprets to be its premise) of dealing with post-rape trauma in favour of “a mumble-core coming of age story.” Finally Granger dismisses new film A Ghost Story, simply because he knows it features a man in a two-holes-and-a-sheet ghost costume (never mind that A Ghost Story isn’t really a horror film).

How does Granger unite his, arguably idiosyncratic, unrelated critiques of these three films? He reverses on himself and praises them, saying they are “too smart…to scare the audience for very long.” Granger’s thesis ultimately comes as a surprise. His claim that horror is lowbrow art, named after a “primitive” emotion, is not meant as a criticism but a respectful observation. He is not saying that Get Out is a lowbrow film, but that it fails because it is not a lowbrow film.

Now maybe I’m not the right person to be responding to this piece. I can’t begin to relate to the kind of people who say they like amusement parks because they like getting scared, so perhaps I can’t relate to the kind of viewer who wants their horror to be as gory and traumatizing as possible. For me, the thrill of watching so-called horror-films is experiencing the psychological struggles of characters as they are confronted with exceptions to the norms of reality. The genius of much of today’s highbrow horror is how it tinkers with that formula. Get Out, for instance, depicts a fantastical-source of terror that does exist in the real world (racism), leaving viewers to juggle with the question of where the line between magic and realism in Get Out truly lies. The Witch similarly experimented with the horror formula by depicting a historical moment in which witches and other horrific beings were accepted as part of reality. Viewers of The Witch are thus in the unique position of knowing they are watching a horror story, while the film’s characters do not understand themselves as participating in one.

Another strength of “highbrow horror” is that it often substitutes graphic visuals of monsters/evil, with simple, realistic shots. It Follows and It Comes at Night, are both examples of works in which the monster was never shown to be more than “it.” In Granger’s eyes this makes the films disappointments. If anything, however, the (non)presence of “its” makes these films better as audiences are dealt with the dual horror of both knowing that an “it” exists, while also experiencing the horrific ways in which the fluid entity that is it permeates into the characters—scaring them and becoming part of them. I should add here, that as someone who partially enjoys art not just as a viewer but as a (very, very amateur) creator, there’s a certain thrill in seeing low budget horror. I might not be able to make home movies about zombies, but I can certainly be inspired to create projects featuring “its” and “sheet-ghosts.”

Is highbrow horror possible? On the one hand, recent innovations in the genre, such as the explicit conscientiousness of Get Out, the subtle horror of Colossal and the magical-historical-fiction of The Witch show that of course it is possible, even as these films are not above criticism. To call these films “non-horror” or disappointments in the genre is to miss that their strength stems from a constant eerie sense that something is not quite right, and that that may be due to a supernatural force being at play. Perhaps these films should not be considered good horror for failing to meet Granger’s standard for scariness. But if that’s the only problem, then let’s do all of ourselves a favour and stop worrying about the lie that is genre. Just as Willie Nelson should not be kept out of the rock and roll hall of fame because some voters think “country” (which is folk-rock music sung with a southern accent) is a “different genre” than “rock,” great horror films like “It Comes at Night,” should not be dismissed because they are “not scary.”