Apparently, the novel Bird Box by Josh Malerman was published the year before Tim Lebbon´s The Silence. Arguably, they both were finished way before Bryan Woods and Scott Beck’s screenplay for A Quiet Place. Regardless of whatever the real chronology of events actually was, it will be impossible not to mentally bundle together all of their eventual movie iterations as one sole package- Sensory Overload, or something- and indulge in not that lengthy discussions regarding which one worked the best.
They will not be lengthy because John Krasinski’s breakthrough hit rests heads and shoulders above the others and Bird Box was, in my humble opinion (and I quote myself here), not particularly scary but particularly good. The one point left to debate is, therefore, how does John R. Leonetti’s latest genre offering fare? Pretty horribly, that is how, and for me, that would be the end of the discussion.
The premise is exactly the same as A Quiet Place’s: monstrous creatures invade the world and quickly proceed to decimate it; if you make a noise they will show up to kill you. It also shares the same promise of a safe haven- if you can make it through endlessly perilous shenanigans, that is- awaiting up north as Bird Box. It is an excellent set-up, actually, but what you do with it is what matters. Annabelle, his highest profile hit (so far), remains one of the most stupefyingly boring, worst paced horror films I have ever watched. It is director Leonetti´s same incapability to control rhythm which, again, proves to be the film’s downfall; it starts slowly- meaninglessly so- and then it sputters on and off, apparently oblivious to what it wants to accomplish in the first place. But the pacing is hardly the one fault to be found.
A tentative initial voice-over from Kiernan Shipka (criminally wasted here) implies that she will literally explain this new world to us but after three or so lines- spread out over minutes that feel as pointless as extremely long- the narration stops and comes back only until the very end, to offer some wistfully hopeful final lines. That alone is a depressingly common trope even outside genre films, but it is the utterly unconnected nature of those lines that, in effect, set the disappointingly scattered tone of the oncoming rest. “Dad always told me I was gifted, the way I was able to adapt so quickly to becoming deaf, feeling those around me,” she declares at the beginning. However, unlike A Quiet Place and its intelligent treatment of Millicent Simmond’s character, the screenplay squanders a myriad opportunities to extract tension from hearing impairment, and you would be hard pressed even to realize Shipka’s character can´t hear if not for her telling us in the first place. The rest of the characters (played, among others, by Miranda Otto and John Corbett) are just as poorly defined and, if not for a rock-solid turn from an amazing Stanley Tucci- who, in fact, produces a believably reliable creation out of thin air- this would have become an even greater burden to bear.
What results in arguably the very worst mistake from the filmmakers, nevertheless, is their choice to show us the “terrorizing” creatures. Which are a mixture of the bat-winged Gremlin from The New Batch, a CG gargoyle and some prehistoric sidekick design to be used in a Blue Sky Studios release? They are neither scary nor grotesque enough to infuse us with genuine fright- let alone any kind of Lovecraftian-like dread- and almost manage to make the story’s main threat downright pedestrian- if not flat out idiotic. On top of that their desire to explain their origin (“They got trapped in that cave, whatever they were, and then they became something else”) not only does its own part in absolutely demystifying them but it also gifts us with: “They´re calling them Vesps because of how they swarm." Avispa means wasp in Spanish…” So? Wasp is Guêpe in French and Oca in Russian- we can go on.
Incredibly, when the third act changes gears once more the movie jolts into unexpected life. Tucci and Shipka are forced to foray into a deserted town to pick up medicine from the local drugstore, and they encounter The Reverend (Billy MacLellan), the very well groomed self-proclaimed leader of his flock, The Hushed, a small group of survivors who (assumedly) have had their tongues ripped out. This leads to a climactic detour into the home-invasion genre that leaves you wanting. As well as wondering what exactly this effort could have been had it centered from the beginning on these characters as well as on the world they are shaping; MacLellan’s performance alone goes a long way towards sinking you down an extremely effective frightful tension, way more enticing than anything in the actual final product.
In hindsight, the most ill-advised exchange comes once Tucci has finally packed his family into the family van, headed for a more uninhabited area, and Shipka’s would-be boyfriend asks her via video-call: “But where up north are you gonna go?”; she responds without a trace of irony (at least I think), “I don’t know. Some place quiet”.
Eloy Ricardo Balderas Salazar