Over the last several weeks, A Quiet Place has emerged as an unexpected hit, already hauling in over $150 million on a mere $20 million budget. The thrills of the film are enforced by the fact that the characters are unable to speak due to some apocalyptic circumstances, and one of the young actresses in the film is deaf.
While this approach may feel totally novel to film audiences, and A Quiet Place is certainly rife with original moments, this approach is actually well-trodden territory for filmmakers working in horror and suspense genres. For decades, directors have understood that denying characters, and by extension, their audiences the use of senses that they are used to depending on, it is a recipe for suspenseful moments and box office success.
Filmmakers have long been centering on characters with disabilities, protagonists who have endured trying accidents, and points of view that strip us of one or more senses to tell some of Hollywood’s most thrilling stories.
If you loved A Quiet Place’s deft technique in using sound (or the lack thereof) to tell the most suspenseful story possible, here are some other films that have used sensory deprivation for maximum thrills.
The Eye (2002)
Directors: The Pang Brothers
A blind virtuoso violinist, Mun (Angelica Lee), thinks she has the opportunity of a lifetime when she finds out she has been selected for a cornea transplant. The operation goes without incident: her sight is restored. But, she also sees more than she bargained for. What should have been a dream come true turns into a nightmare when Mun begins seeing spectral harbingers of doom.
When Mun sees one of these ghostly figures, it means that someone is going to die. At first, it appears that this sensation is purely psychological; it turns out that the truth is far more terrifying. While the gift of sight is a blessing, this particular pair of eyes comes with a terrible curse.
This terrifying film has inspired remakes in several countries, including in the United States starring Jessica Alba, but none of them have been able to match The Pang Brothers’ terrifying original. Critics often praise Lee’s performance, as she and the filmmakers realized that what is terrifying about this situation is not just what Mun sees, but her reactions to what she is forced to behold after a lifetime without sight.
Wait Until Dark (1967)
Director: Terence Young
One of the most beloved and most suspenseful films about blindness, Wait Until Dark (adapted from a play of the same name by Frederick Knott) tells the story of a blind woman, Susy, who finds herself the target of some ruthless and terrifying criminals. Audrey Hepburn, in a role that earned her an Oscar nod, memorably plays the leading lady who is misled and terrorized by a group of con-artists led by Harry (Alan Arkin).
The criminals are trying to retrieve a doll that has been stuffed with heroin. Hepburn's character not only doesn’t know the nature of the doll, but also who and how many men are trying to take advantage of her. Some of the most terrifying moments in the film come when various men are entering Susy’s apartment, and she has no idea who is coming or going at a given time. Ultimately, Susy evens the playing field by plunging her apartment into complete darkness and the result is one of the most memorable cinematic struggles of all time.
Rear Window (1954)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
One of the greatest suspense movies of all time is made all the more dramatic because the protagonist, L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair. Jeffries is a photographer laid up with a broken leg after a mishap at a horse race. His worst voyeuristic impulses take over as he is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment and he becomes a peeping tom.
In his compulsive observation of his neighborhood, Jeff witnesses a crime, or at least, he spies what he thinks is a murder. Initially, anyone he tells who is able to investigate can’t seem to find any evidence. Is Jeff paranoid, a casualty of a terrible case of cabin fever, or is the only person who knows the real truth of what happened at the building next door?
Rear Window’s popularity has endured for decades, and it is exactly this sense of confined helplessness that Hitchcock creates that has made the film a classic. Roger Ebert once wrote:
“The hero of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is trapped in a wheelchair, and we're trapped, too--trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options. When he passes his long days and nights by shamelessly maintaining a secret watch on his neighbors, we share his obsession. It's wrong, we know, to spy on others, but after all, aren't we always voyeurs when we go to the movies? Here's a film about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience--look through a lens at the private lives of strangers.”
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Director: Adrian Lyne
While removing a measure of sensory control in the body is certainly terrifying, it could be, perhaps, even more terrifying if it is your mind that betrays you. This is the premise of the Tim Robbins-led film Jacob’s Ladder.
In the 1990 psychological thriller, Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran who is struggling with mental health issues. Jacob Singer saw horrific action in the Mekong Delta in 1971, and the film takes us through his mental state beginning in 1975.
Jacob’s Ladder takes the very real mental toll of PTSD and endows the disorder with real world weight. Flashbacks and grisly memories manifest themselves in real-world violence: cars explode, soldiers convulse, people die. The trauma of war visits itself on the soldier long after they have left the battlefield.
The film delves into the mental toll that is taken on veterans who see combat, and reflects on how your perception of reality and truth can be warped by traumatic events, even as we struggle not to let those events define the rest of our lives.
Director: Mike Flanagan
One of a number of Blumhouse productions to gain acclaim in the horror community in recent years, Hush takes the cliche structure of home invasion horror movies, and injects an element we haven’t often seen before: a deaf protagonist.
Kate Siegel stars as Maddie, a deaf author who, like so many cinematic authors, lives by herself in a remote area of the woods. Once a serial killer (John Gallagher Jr.) finds out that Maddie is deaf, he decides to initiate a horrific cat and mouse game with her, as he sadistically prepares to make her his next victim.
Read My Lips (2001)
Director: Jacques Audiard
Carla, a mild-mannered and overworked deaf woman (Emmanuelle Devos), is thrust into the seedy underbelly of the Paris crime world when she hires an ex-convict, Paul (Vincent Cassel), to be her assistant. Paul improves Carla’s work life dramatically, and then it comes Carla’s turn to assist Paul. He wants to rob a nightclub owner to whom he has fallen deeply in debt, and he thinks Carla’s lip-reading skills could be just what he needs to pull off the heist of a lifetime.
The crime doesn’t go exactly according to plan, but it opens Carla up to a whole new world of danger, and also teaches her that she has a far wider skill set than is being appreciated at her soul crushing desk job.
Dead Awake (2016)
Director: Phillip Guzman
Kate (Jocelin Donahue) is investigating a series of murders that have a very strange factor in common: they have all happened while the victims were asleep. Specifically, the victims suffer from sleep paralysis, a terrifying disease that renders you immobile while you’re unconscious, or rather, indulging your subconscious. Kate and her allies realize that the only way to defeat the monster tormenting their dreams is to defeat it while they are themselves plagued by sleep paralysis.
While this critically panned film isn’t exactly the level of cinematic gem as some other picks on this list, if your dreams terrify you, this might be the kind of horror film that will, well, haunt your dreams.
Don’t Breathe (2014)
Director: Fede Alverez
Often when horror or suspense films cast a blind or deaf character, they are the victimized protagonist. Don’t Breathe turns that model on its head, telling the story of a blind antagonist (Stephen Lang) who torments a groups of young criminals who break into his house.
Lang plays a Gulf War veteran named Norman who was left without his sight following a bomb blast. Don’t Breathe focuses on how the heightened senses Norman has developed due to his condition make him a terrifying, and nearly unstoppable force of terror. Much of the horror experienced by would-be criminals comes when they are forced to experience the world in much the same way as their blind tormentor.
Mute Witness (1995)
Director: Anthony Waller
In this multinational meta-commentary on the horror genre, Billy (Marina Zudina) is an a FX make-up artist who is also mute. She begins the film in Moscow, working on a low-budget slasher film, but when she ends up locked in the studio after hours, she finds herself on the set of a very different kind of film. Billy is witness to the filming of a pornographic snuff film that culminates in an actual murder.
From there, Billy finds herself immersed in a dark underworld that is being manipulated by a mysterious snuff kingpin known only as “The Reaper” (Alex Guinness). As Billy finds herself more involved in the Reaper’s world, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what is real and what is part of the fiction being perpetrated by the criminal mastermind and his crew. Because this is a film about filmmaking, there are plenty of references to older horror films, including some we’ve included on this list.
The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
Director: Adam Robitel
Alzheimer’s Disease seems like an unlikely subject for a horror film, but that’s exactly what happens in the supernatural found-footage thriller The Taking of Deborah Logan. Deborah (Jill Larson) has been exhibiting strange and aggressive behavior as she enter old age. While doctors initially attribute this to Alzheimer’s, it quickly becomes clear that there is something more nefarious, and perhaps otherworldly, at play.
As her family struggles to deal with Deborah’s condition, they find themselves enmeshed in the world of the occult, cannibals, and demonic possession. It quickly becomes clear that Deborah’s condition is just the tip of the iceberg.
Critics were moved by the film’s sensitivity to Deborah’s condition, given the out-there subject matter, and applauded the film for exploring the role women play in society as caregivers. Somewhat surprisingly, lines like “The story of Alzheimer’s is never about one person…this insidious disease not only destroys the patient but has a physiological effect on the primary caregiver.” are as common as demonic bloodshed in this strangely thoughtful film.
For more horror content, check out why Hereditary is being hailed as one of the most insane films in years.