The production company Platinum Dunes’s recent trajectory is an illustrative microcosm of where mainstream horror filmmaking is currently situated in the 2010s. The Michael Bay-funded production brand got its start in horror in the early 2000s, buying up the rights to bankable intellectual properties like Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street and reshaping them into big budget Hollywood blockbusters, much to horror fans’ . . . horror. These passionless remakes, combined with that same era’s torture porn grime, painted a grim picture of where horror was going as a medium. Platinum Dunes made a sizable profit off a genre it only saw value in as a vehicle for making a sizable profit, but in the long-term found that exercise both creatively unfulfilling for themselves and alienating to the genre fans they were catering to (at least according to producer Brad Fuller in a recent interview with Shock Waves). Recently, they found much greater success by producing an original property helmed by a creative voice with a personal vested interest in seeing it done right. A Quiet Place has already made over $200mil on a $17mil budget without retracing the steps of a previous classic and without alienating the genre film fans that made it a success. Along with last year’s adaptation of IT, A Quiet Place’s overwhelming success indicates that although it’s possible to make a tidy profit off the horror audiences studios usually take for granted with thoughtless dreck, it’s even more rewarding to pay attention to the quality of the work instead of using the genre as an “Anything’ll do” placeholder. A Quiet Place is in many ways as a traditional mainstream horror with wide commercial appeal, but it’s an example of that medium done exceptionally well. It’s a shame Platinum Dunes and other well-funded production companies didn’t realize the financial potential for that balance back in the grim nu-metal days of the early 00s.
Although tracking A Quiet Place’s arrival through the trajectory of Platinum Dunes is illuminating in picking apart the status of the modern horror, the true auteurist voice behind the picture is The Office vet John Krasinski (another repeat Michael Bay collaborator). Like the producers behind the film, Krasinski admits to not typically being a fan of horror, but fell in love with the original script’s premise when presented an opportunity to play the lead role. Krasinski’s passion is exactly what was missing from the company’s early remakes of horror classics. He not only signed on to play the father figure at the center of the film’s dystopian creative feature nightmare, but also insisted on personally rewriting major elements of the screenplay, directing, and eventually casting his own wife (consistently impressive badass Emily Blunt) as his co-lead. This isn’t exactly the mainstream horror flick equivalent of John Cassavetes putting his own family through hell in projects like A Woman Under the Influence, but Krasinski does make this mainstream genre flick feel surprisingly personal. It’s easy to detect what drew him to the project. A real-life father, Krasinski turns this high-concept monster movie into an expression of fatherly anxiety over the traditionally macho concerns of serving as protector over a vulnerable wife & children. It’s a remarkably Conservative (and rigidly gendered) way of depicting a family-in-crisis dynamic (Michael Bay is involved, after all), but one that’s self-reflective & repeatedly challenged as it falls apart in the face of impending doom. Although each character in A Quiet Place’s drastically limited cast gets their share of the spotlight and their own internal conflicts, the film overall feels like a solid Dad Horror movie, a nice compliment to all the great Mom Horrors of recent years: The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, We Need to Talk About Kevin, etc. The trick is that even if these macho protector anxieties are as personal to Krasinski as they were to Trey Edward Schults in the superficially similar It Comes at Night, the Platinum Dunes commitment to commercial appeal makes sure they don’t distract the movie from delivering the traditional horror genre goods. It’s one of those rare instances where the personal & the commercial reach a wonderfully harmonious equilibrium, true movie magic.
The surprise of A Quiet Place’s commercial success is neither Platinum Dunes finding a second chance on the horror media landscape nor how personal Krasinski made the project feel. It’s that a largely silent, subtitled monster movie was able to appeal to such a wide audience. In the not-so-distant future, a species of blind, bug-like creatures with an exceptional sense of hearing has seemingly wiped out the majority of the human race. This isn’t explained in an opening text crawl or expositional dialogue, but rather the block letters of newspaper headlines that were used for similar information dumps in 1950s sci-fi B-pictures. A small family carefully maneuvers through this environment, speaking only subtitled sign language and tiptoeing barefoot in avoidance of the aggressive monster-bugs that will destroy them if they make a single peep. This delicately quiet environment sometimes makes for a distracting theatrical experience (I was very aware of the rest of the audience and the sounds of Avengers: Infinity War bleeding over through the walls), but it also sets the mood for an excellent jump scare environment. Loud noises and sudden monster attacks are heart-stopping in their intense clash with the near-silent atmosphere they erupt from. It also helps that the monsters themselves are impeccably designed (appearing to be a gumbo of details borrowed from Alien, Cloverfield, and Starship Troopers), with features that only become more interesting as their onscreen exposure increases late in the runtime. The “If they hear you, they hunt you” gimmick is a fantastic starting place for a horror film, but given general audiences’ aversion to subtitled dialogue and impatience with quiet builds (that were a few compulsive cellphone-checkers in my own audience) it’s amazing that the film could make its world so instantly accessible to so many people. It’s probably the closest a largely silent feature film has had to wild commercial appeal since the Oscar-winning comedy-drama The Artist nearly a decade ago.
While the wonderfully tense creature feature atmosphere is what got butts in the seats, it’s Krasinski’s commitment to the film’s familial drama that affords it a lasting effect. This is the story of a flailing father figure struggling to maintain traditional family values (with prayer before meals, clearly defined gender roles for his children, the whole deal) in a world thrown into chaos by hearing-sensitive monsters. Early on, when he’s shown surveying his farmland dominion from atop a silo while his wife preps a nursery for their unborn baby inside, the movie feels like a North-Western survivalist power fantasy where the bearded flannel men of Instagram can daydream about their macho roles as Protector after the inevitable downfall of society. The subversion of this Doomsday Prepper fantasy is much subtler than the critique that drives 10 Cloverfield Lane, but the initial rustic Pinterest calm is thoroughly disrupted by the film’s chaotically violent conclusion. The first cracks in his macho armor are presented by his deaf teen daughter (Wonderstruck’s Millicent Simmons, whom Krasinski smartly insisted on casting over hearing-abled actors), who is vehemently frustrated with the traditionally femme domestic roles he attempts to force on her. This is matched by her perpetually petrified brother’s reluctance to being trained as a hunter-gatherer future-Dad. What’s even worse is the father’s failure to protect his wife & kids form the monsters invading their idyllic Norman Rockwell homestead. When his wife asks, “Who are we if we cannot protect them?” you can see Krasinski slipping into an existential Conservative Dad crisis both in front of and behind the camera. For all A Quiet Place’s merits as an adventurous, high-concept creature feature with wide commercial appeal, it’s that protective paternal anxiety, especially skewed towards Macho Dads, that makes the film feel like a substantial work. Disregarding Platinum Dunes’s shaky reputation within the horror community and Cinema Sins-style logic sticklers’ nitpicky complaints about its premise & exposition, it’s remarkable how much personality & genuine familial tension Krasinski was able to infuse into this genre film blockbuster; it’s the most distinctive film to bear Michael Bay’s name since Pain & Gain.