When the world comes under attack from terrifying creatures who hunt their human prey by sound, 16-year old Ally Andrews (Kiernan Shipka), who lost her hearing at 13, and her family seek refuge in a remote haven. But how does this horror movie stack up alongside Emily Blunt and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place?
In the darkness of a vast underground cave system, cut off from the world for millennia, blind winged creatures hunt by sound. Then there is light, there are voices, and they feed. Swarming from their prison, the Vesps multiply… and thrive.
Ah, there’s nothing quite as much fun as a “so bad it’s good” B-movie horror – unless it’s a B-movie horror with a standout cast. And The Silence sees Kiernan Shipka team up with her Chilling Adventures of Sabrina co-star Miranda Otto, Devil Wears Prada’s Stanley Tucci and John Corbett (as in, yes, Aidan from Sex and the City) for a post-apocalyptic jaunt across the United States of America.
At a glance, the premise to Netflix’s The Silence – based on Tim Lebbon’s bestselling book of the same name – sounds an awful lot like last year’s smash horror hit A Quiet Place. Just as we saw in Emily Blunt and John Krasinski’s film, our heroes are faced with a terrible mission: to remain as quiet as humanly possible, lest they suffer a gruesome death. And, just as we saw in A Quiet Place, all of their hopes are pinned on a deaf teenage girl.
That’s right: three years before the events of this movie, 16-year-old Ali (Shipka) lost her hearing in what some more uncharitable reviewers are calling a “convenient” accident. This means that she has become an easy target for high school bullies, who mock her relentlessly behind her back. It also means that, when America is flooded with flying death machines – imagine something like a bat crossed with the critter that bursts out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien, and you’re there – Ali and her too-perfect family have something of an advantage: they already know how to live in silence, and this could well prove to be their only chance of survival.
So why should horror fans give this apparent knock-off of A Quiet Place a chance? Well, firstly because Lebbon’s story actually predates the Krasinski and Blunt movie (you might say, then, that it’s actually A Quiet Place that’s the knock-off here). And because this low-budget, low-impact horror is a genuinely fun watch, too.
One thing must be made abundantly clear from the get-go: The Silence is undeniably schlocky. The first few scenes, set deep within that cave system, feel… well, they almost feel as if a film student knocked them up on their computer at home. The monsters feel under-powered (I reckon I could take on a swarm of Vesps armed with nothing but a tennis racquet and my wits). The plot, likewise, feels more than a little rushed: Ali and her family enjoy one afternoon of normality on screen before she’s being shaken awake in the middle of the night and dragged downstairs to watch the news. Her hearing loss is a questionable plot device, as is the casting director’s decision to not hire a deaf actress (indeed, many in the deaf community have slammed the film for its “grammatically incorrect” use of ASL sign language). The family’s decision to grab their bark-happy Rottweiler, clamber inside their very noisy car and vacate their home in the middle of the night, despite being warned to stay inside and stay very quiet by newsreaders, seems questionable at best, suicidal at worst. Their attempts to save a family friend Glenn from a crashed car feel incredibly half-hearted – and he seems to know it, too, judging by the exasperated expression on his face.
The Silence is, despite all of its flaws, actually a pretty clever film. Not in terms of the threat’s genesis (we never truly learn where the Vesps come from, or why they’ve suddenly awakened from their centuries-long hibernation) or the thin credibility of the digital effects. Instead, much like Stephen King’s The Mist, the film uses its alien critters to make an eternally valid point about humanity. Watching at home, the viewer is forced to confront the fragility of community as people slowly begin to turn on one another. Hugh (Tucci) wastes no time in shoving the dog out of the car and into the gaping jaws of the Vesps when the pooch starts barking. Deep in an underground subway, we see passengers slowly swivel their heads to stare at a flustered mother as she does her best to calm her crying baby, before doing what they need to boost their own chances of survival.
Perhaps most chilling of all the human-faced monsters, though, is an end-of-days preaching religious maniac, played to perfection by Billy MacLellan. This guy has a nasty habit of cutting out the tongues of his followers and kidnapping any young women he comes across, in a bid to tend to the more primal urges of his flock. When Hugh and co find him stood in their front yard, smile pasted to his lips and a notebook with the words “IS THE FEMALE FERTILE?” scrawled across it, he is immediately more terrifying than the Vesps swarming in the sky. And the ante is upped when Hugh, desperate to protect his daughter, raises a shotgun in the preacher’s face… and the guy doesn’t even bat an eyelid. Instead, he raises a finger to his lips and reminds Ali’s dad to “shh” – a firm reminder that guns will not help them in this dark new world.
It’s also worth noting that the film breaks with traditional horror movie tropes. For starters, we see the monsters from the get-go, which means that we always know exactly what we’re dealing with – even if that something proves to be akin to blind gremlins with wings. There’s a surprisingly tense moment with a smartphone alarm clock, not to mention a fun explanation for the horror movie standard of “phone mysteriously loses signal at worst possible moment”. And the characters are quickly proven to be as dispensable as toilet paper – which definitely adds a certain something to the film’s charm. One key scene, for example, sees one of the film’s biggest stars make a sacrifice to save the others, and I assumed that him doing this off-screen meant that he’d later reappear, looking suitably grizzled and leaning heavily on a makeshift shotgun-cane, ready to save the day.
Reader, I was wrong.
The Silence will never, and should never, enjoy the same critical acclaim as its glitzy big sister, A Quiet Place: it lacks the nuance, the emotion, the representation of deaf communities, and the goddamn mystery, after all. But there’s no denying that this horror film is light and frothy enough to enjoy at home with friends, on the daily commute, or even on a short domestic flight (the running time proved the perfect fit for my recent trip from Belfast to London).
And, while the plot is almost eerie in its efficiency (we meet our characters; our characters learn about the chaos; they do their best to survive), each of the all-star cast members delivers a compelling performance, which is guaranteed to have you rooting for them all the way to the bitter end.
Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.