The worst scares are the relatable ones. It’s easy to dismiss tension or scares if we can’t relate to the characters on the screen. If you don’t agree, tompare your reaction to watching someone die in the cold of deep space to how you feel watching someone get a bad paper cut. The pain we can imagine happening to us ourselves is much worse than the pain that seems purely fantastical.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for A Quiet Place.]
And we certainly know, or can at least imagine, what it’s like to step on a rusty nail. A Quiet Place uses both situations to create nearly unbearable amounts of tension. That nail is going to stick with you, figuratively at least, long after the movie is over.
Keep your eye on that nail ...
Here’s the setup of the movie, in brief terms: The world has been taken over by murderous creatures who can only locate their victims through sound. Silence is safe, but any noise at all means an instant death. You can only survive by being as careful and quiet as possible.
A family has modified a farm house to protect themselves, down to marking the floorboards that don’t squeak with streaks of gray paint. But a laundry sack gets stuck on a nail in the floor during one scene. The mother, who is pregnant, is able to free the laundry, but doing so straightens the nail out so that it’s pointing through the wood. While the characters don’t know it’s there, the rest of us are unlikely to be able to get that nail out of our collective heads.
The movie calls its shot, which makes the whole thing even more impressive. “We’re going to make you forget about this nail,” it seems to say, “and then hit you with it when you least expect it.” It’s easy to feel smug, because of course we’re going to remember the nail!
Each future scene of someone walking up or down the stairs becomes fraught with a ridiculous amount of fear and tension, on top of the fact that any noise will be fatal. But we always remember that the nail is there, and we know it’s going to figure into the story somehow.
Alfred Hitchcock had a theory about creating and sustaining tension: You can’t just have a bomb blow up; you have to tell the audience it’s there, then have the characters to focus on the mundane while the audience screams at them to do something. That’s how you keep them scared.
A Quiet Place tells us there are multiple bombs under the table: The nail is still there — not to mention that, at some point, this woman is going to have to give birth and take care of a newborn baby without making a sound.
This is how the movie is able to deliver a series of moments that feel like a sustained attack on our nerves. There’s a scene where it already feels like the worst has happened, but look how clever this family has been in preparing for it! It looks like everything might be OK!
And then another bomb goes off the moment your guard has been lowered. The audience forgot about it for a second, and now it’s time to punish them for it. The movie’s sleight of hand worked.
The most important thing, and the thing that Hitchcock stressed, is that a movie can really drive the audience crazy by not blowing up the bomb. The nail is such an effective tool in this situation, not only because we can imagine the terrible pain and sound it would inflict, but also because it’s not a single-use item. There is never a conversation about the nail even after its climactic moment, which keeps us scared of it until the final shot of the film. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, narratively speaking.
This isn’t a new trick, by any means, but it’s still one of the best.