“A Quiet Place” is an amusing title for what turns out to be a meticulously muscle-clenching exercise in gimmicky horror, the type that imagines a future population terrorized by sight-challenged predators who hunt by human noise. The title is all kinds of winking: It sounds like a lost Horton Foote play about hardscrabble people of the land, and yet that’s the setting here — a quaint, secluded farm, only the struggle is to survive being ripped apart by aliens.
Then there’s the last thing a theater showing a well-made horror movie is … again, see title. Director-star-co-writer John Krasinski’s careful deployment of nerve-distressing moments doesn’t even need a burst of gnarly monster to get an audience vocalizing: listen for the crowd reaction when his wife (off and onscreen) Emily Blunt cautiously ascends a staircase, and the camera stays back to show an errant nail jutting from a step, awaiting someone’s bare foot on the way down.
The collective, dread-inducing moan I heard from the audience around me at that reveal is surely, in my estimation, what horror filmmakers live for more than the shock and gore. (Because it’s real suspense; like Hitchcock’s ticking bomb under the table, we know it’s there.)
So yes, “A Quiet Place” is sweat-it-out fun in a trap-rich minefield. (I would also have been happy with a “Get Out”-like exclamatory title: maybe “Shut the F— Up”?) It’s also perfectly in keeping with the near-ubiquity of whisper-acting lately across television and movies of all stripes, dialogue delivered as if mumbling weren’t inarticulate enough. Finally, here’s a movie in which hushed talking would make absolute sense. And yet communication in the Abbott family is mostly with sign language, since their pre-teen oldest, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is deaf.
Of course, ASL is a beneficial tool when speaking is a no-no, until you realize a child who can’t hear also can’t tell when she’s making a sound. (Hence, the markers in the floorboards that tell Regan where they won’t squeak.) It’s one of the cleverest things about the survival architecture of “A Quiet Place”; what seems ingeniously helpful in one sense can suddenly look useless when applied to other scenarios. At the same time, in the screenplay by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and Krasinski, there are tactics to outlast the creatures when in their midst — it’s related to a given noise’s volume — which creates other pulse-quickening moments of near-miss panic.
After a ghost-town-foraging prologue that introduces the Abbott clan as a tight unit, but then deals them a horrific tragedy, “A Quiet Place” settles in nearly a year later at their forest-enclosed homestead, where a system of lights, soft household items (they eat on leaves instead of plates), sanded pathways and padded spaces ensure a base level of safety for Lee (Krasinski), Evelyn (Blunt, sublimely good), Regan, and Marcus (Noah Jupe, “Wonder”).
Security-minded Lee toils away in his lair of radios and electronic parts trying to find survivors or to build a better hearing aid. Otherwise he’s a grim-faced survivalist with little time to address Regan’s sense of neglect, feeling that dad considers her the weak link. Simmonds, who made such a strong impression in “Wonderstruck,” continues to impress here, deftly offering a believable picture of how jeopardy and inner turmoil motivate a lonely adolescent.
At the top of the readiness concerns, however, is Evelyn’s pregnancy. But as prepared as the family is — from a soundproofed barn bunker for the birth to the creepily coffin-like box through which oxygen can be pumped to an squealing infant — Evelyn’s unexpected labor still partly triggers the second half’s rollicking succession of nail-biting encounters with the audio-aroused and relentless fiends. You won’t get a description here of the shrieking, hungry predators (who wants a design spoiler?) but they’re among the nastiest-looking in recent memory.
Krasinski, aided greatly by Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s textured cinematography, knows when the monsters are best kept offscreen and when to give them their close-up. And as you might expect in a movie that hinges on sound, the mix of silence with noises variously environmental, exposing, and terrifying, coupled with the occasional music-laced excitement (Marco Beltrami composed the score), is spot on.
“A Quiet Place” grounds its existential fear with a fair amount of emotion, too, convincingly played. Threaded throughout the peril is a simple but effective message about familial love, communication, and sacrifice, and there are just enough small moments — for the cast to convey with their faces between major frights — that serve to deepen things ever so slightly.
Whether you’re in it for the ride, or the story of loved ones under siege, it’s safe to say nobody could have expected Krasinski (after two unassuming features, including the dysfunctional-clan dramedy “The Hollars”) to have this in him as a director. Maybe for some filmmakers sincerely interested in human emotions, all they need to show their stuff is to add monsters.