Monday, April 29, 2019

A Quiet Silence

The phrase "timing is everything" is hardly radical, but in the world of concept horror, it can truly make all the difference. Take, for example, Tim Lebbon's novel The Silence. Published in 2015, it tells the story of an average nuclear family in England trying to survive a plague of otherworldly monsters who hunt by sound. Since one of the children is deaf, their fluency in sign language serves as a helpful tool in outlasting the enemy. They hole up in an empty farmhouse and do their best to not make a sound.

Yes, I essentially just described the plot of John Krasinski's 2018 sleeper hit A Quiet Place. Much like how Suzanne Collins allegedly knew nothing about Battle Royale when penning The Hunger Games, A Quiet Place was also seemingly developed without any knowledge of Lebbon's book. It also had the good fortune to get its cinematic release well before director John R. Leonetti's adaptation of The Silence, which dropped on Netflix with the ill luck of being seen as a cash-in of both Krasinski's film and the similarly premised Bird Box.

All this is to say that The Silence has a lot agains it from any casual viewer's perspective. Having enjoyed the novel and Leonetti's Wish Upon, I was rooting for it.

Quick Plot: When a pair of researching spelunkers head deep into a Pennsylvanian cave, an undiscovered species of bat-like creatures emerge, blindly chewing their way through the entire Western Hemisphere. Stuck in the middle is a typical American family headed by dad Hugh (top ten crush list Stanley Tucci), mom Kelly, kid brother Jude, and key to their survival, 16-year-old Ally (Kiernan Shipka). Just three years earlier, a car accident robbed Ally of her hearing, meaning she's now used to living in the titular silence with her ASL-fluent family.

This is a huge convenience, as vesps (as the creatures are dubbed) hunt purely by sound. Joined by Kelly's cancer-ridden mom, Hugh's BFF Glenn, and a lovable but barking Rotweiler, the Andrews hitch up their vehicles and head to more rural roads, signing and whispering (even though, you know, they're signing) along the way. 

Naturally, this being of 2019's societal collapse subgenre, human-eating CGI bat things aren't the only enemy on the hunt. With less than thirty minutes left to spare, The Silence tosses in a creepy cult led by a tongue-less reverend with his eye on the apparently fertile Ally.

Let me get this out of the way: as you might have deduced by my intro, I feel a little sorry for The Silence. Director Leonetti has proven to be pretty hit-or-miss in the horror genre. For as much as I despised everything about his Butterfly Effect 2, I've been a genuine fan of his more recent output (Annabelle, Wish Upon). Throw in a cast that includes Stanley Tucci's hairy arms and Sally Draper and what's not to love?

Well, unfortunately for me, this movie.

Lebbon's book is told from the alternate points of view of Hugh and Ally (younger in the novel than Shipka in the film), providing a solid foundation of the Andrews. Ally in particular is a smart, resourceful girl, having transformed her deafness into the very key to her family's survival. A Quiet Place has its flaws (WHY DOESN'T ANYONE WEAR SOCKS GODDAMNIT?) but one of its greatest strengths is young actress Millicent Simmonds, hearing-impaired herself and playing a character with the same condition. Aside from the right politics of such a casting choice, Simmonds is wonderful, and you completely buy the struggles and strengths she deals with.

I ADORE Kiernan Shipka and continue to see great things for her future. That being said, she is not the right choice for this role.

Shipka can hear just fine, and the movie just never comes close to making us believe otherwise. Characters use sign language while whispering loudly, rendering it rather useless in the scheme of things. Then again, when the final act introduces us to a cult who has to demonstrate their menace with a sharpie and legal pad, you might be more forgiving.

The Silence boasts a ridiculously impressive cast and not a terrible creature design (although as someone partial to the cuteness of bats, the vesps to be are less scary and more like Pee-Wee's Playhouse's Pteri recovering form a meth addiction). Had Bird Box and A Quiet Place not come out mere months before, it would probably still be disappointing to me but more a "meh" rating from the masses. Instead, most audiences will see it a ripoff, and an incredibly mediocre one at that.

High Points
Pat Kiernan alert! Anyone who enjoys morning news on New York 1 knows how comforting the sight of the cheerful Canadian can be. So The Silence has that going for it

Low Points
I could harp on the fact that you can barely see what happens in any of the night scenes, but let me take this space to instead complain about the lack of any real development of time. We have absolutely no idea how many days/weeks/hours it is between the vesps' arrival and the Andrews' flight, nor does the film give us any kind of overview of how far they've driven or where they're even going. Is it weird that a small cult has developed and is already looking to repopulate the earth? WHO KNOWS?

Lessons Learned
Rattlesnakes know their way around upstate NY farmhouse sewers

iPads offer plenty of post-apocalyptic functions, but being used a map is not one of them

Really talented deaf teenagers don't even need to face you to read your lips

Curious Credits
Most films based on novels include that note in the opening credits, yet The Silence completely omits Lebbon and goes straight to screenwriters Carey and Shane Van Dyke (the latter the director of the surprisingly decent Paranormal Entity and the less so A Haunting In Salem). I don't know what Hollywood politics were involved with such a choice, but in the wake of most viewers watching this thinking "here's the Asylum adaptation of A Quiet Place", it seems like a strange missed opportunity of defense

Tim Lebbon's The Silence is an enjoyable horror novel with sympathetic characters and some strong monster passages. John Leonetti's The Silence is a messy genre film that doesn't capture its heart. Read the book, and if you need a Stanley Tucci fix, do what I do every other weekend and rewatch Burlesque.

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