(Photo by Jonny Cournoyer / © Paramount)
Director John Krasinski’s new horror flick, A Quiet Place, is being called a creature feature for the ages. Critics have described the film, which follows a family hiding out in silence from a mysterious threat that responds — very aggressively — to sound, a “nervy terrifying thrill” and “almost unbearably tense”, and lavished it with a Certified Fresh 97% Tomatometer score, so far. Audiences are psyched for the movie, too, based on early buzz and early trailers; it’s tracking to potentially open to $30 million.
In the tradition of some of the most celebrated monster movies in cinema, A Quiet Place keeps its creature cards close to its chest, only revealing what its mysterious threat actually is about halfway through the film. Even then, we rarely get a chance to ogle the noise-hating beasts that are terrorizing Emily Blunt and Co. — marvelous though they are, as rendered by the sick geniuses at Industrial Light and Magic. “Our philosophy is: What you don’t see is scarier,” screenwriter Scott Beck recently told Rotten Tomatoes.
But is hiding your beasties always best for your movie?
As A Quiet Place enters the monster movie canon, we’re looking at whether the amount of screen time that filmmakers give their creatures affects how well their movies are received by critics. Does following the Jaws rule of keeping your monster below surface for an excruciatingly long stretch of your running time necessarily mean your movie will achieve Jaws-like levels of nail-biting tension and critical acclaim? Should movies show more or less when it comes to things that want to kill you? And should they reveal their killers straight out of the gate, or wait to the bitter and bloody end?
Filmmakers offer wildly different answers to those questions. Some unleash their beast(s) almost immediately (Bubba Ho-Tep) and are adored by critics and fans, while others choose to withhold the full reveal until minutes before the end (The Ritual). Some choose to feature their creations for only two minutes (Signs) while others let their monsters linger on screen a lot longer (Hello, King Kong). The impact these choices have on critical reception, as measured through the Tomatometer, is what we’re investigating below.
Specifically we’re diving into two questions:
We pulled together 36 creature features and analyzed their use of their central creatures in an effort to answer the questions. The movies were picked because they encapsulate key aspects of their genre, were created by Stan Winston (a given), or are looked at as trendsetters, cult-classics, or underappreciated gems. We understand these 36 films don’t come close to covering the entirety of the genre, but the data pulled from them does give us some understanding of over 80 years’ worth of cinematic monsters and how their creators used them. The full list is below, and more details about our criteria for choosing them can be found at the bottom of this feature.
Pandorum, Leviathan, Deep Rising, The Relic, Anaconda, Lake Placid, Jeepers Creepers, Eight-Legged Freaks, The Faculty, Mimic, The Blob (1958), Ragnarok, Pacific Rim, The Ritual, Grabbers, Monsters, Signs, Godzilla (2014), Cloverfield, Bubba Ho-Tep, Colossal, Predator, Trollhunter, Super 8, The Thing (1982), Creature From The Black Lagoon, Tremors, The Descent, Spring, Attack the Block, The Host, Godzilla (1954), It Follows, Alien, Jaws, King Kong (1933)
(Photo by (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp)
Creature features that show their monsters for more than four minutes have a higher Tomatometer average than those under four minutes.
76.5% (four minutes or more) > 65% (less than four minutes)
Movies that feature their “This is me!” money shot in the first 30 minutes have a higher Tomatometer average than those that wait.
77% (Monster revealed in first 30 minutes ) > 69.5% (Monster revealed in minute 30-60) > 66.9% (Monster revealed in minute 60-90).
Wait — what? You mean everything my screenwriting professor told me is wrong? Movie lore would have it that the best creature features are those that wait patiently to reveal their bad guys, and then don’t show them too much at all. Show a bit of leg, or fin, to tease your audience and keep them wanting more. There’s data to support this approach. Films like Jaws, Alien, Cloverfield, and Signs are all massive hits that waited an average of 67 minutes to fully reveal their creatures, and then only showed them on screen for a little over three minutes. The same tactic is earning A Quiet Place critical acclaim, with AV Club’s A.A. Dowd saying it “builds tension from the absence of the monster”.
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Ridley Scott‘s Alien are classics of the less-is-more school, both with Tomatometer scores of 97%. However, when we combine those movies’ scores with the Tomameter scores for other movies that delay their monster reveals until after the 60-minute mark — Rotten flicks like Leviathan, Deep Rising, The Faculty, and The Relic — their exceptional individual numbers are weighed down by the stragglers. Combined, these late revealers have an average score of 66.9%, while the movies that fully introduce their monsters within the first 30 minutes average 77%. The latter set includes The Host (2006), It Follows, Pacific Rim, The Blob, Attack the Block, Bubba Ho-Tep, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Pandorum, and Trollhunter.
When you dig into that cream of the creature-feature crop — the 10 best-reviewed films in the data set — some interesting trends and moments in movie history emerge.
10. Tremors (1990) – 85%
9. The Descent (2005) – 85%
8. Spring (2015) – 88%
7. Attack the Block (2011) – 90%
6. The Host (2006) – 93%
5. Godzilla (1954) – 93%
4. It Follows (2015) – 97%
3. Alien (1979) – 97%
2. Jaws (1975) – 97%
1. King Kong (1933) – 98%
In this group of 10, you can see something like an evolution of the creature feature.
King Kong (1933) | Godzilla (1954)
King Kong and Godzilla are arguably the most famous of all monster movies. Both of their central creatures have starred in numerous sequels and reboots, and they now share their own cinematic universe with Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017), and the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2020). The first films that each character appeared in set up a successful template for how and when to introduce monsters.
Both giants get their first money shot at the 46-minute mark of their debut films, and then are given lots of screen time to destroy their respective countries’ largest metropolises. Kong was on screen for just over 18 minutes and Godzilla was featured for almost nine full minutes (8:56). At times when moviegoers were eager for spectacle and special effects, they were getting their money’s worth with these beasts.
The trend of giving monsters plenty of screen time continued with Universal’s 1954 classic, The Creature From the Black Lagoon (number 11 on the Tomatometer from the films in our data set). The lagoon creature was less monumental than Kong or Godzilla, but like them, it was showcased for a significant portion of the movie in which it featured (11 minutes), plenty of time for audiences to scour the creature suit for any tell-tale seams, but also to understand the creature’s motivations.
We come to know and sympathize with it, and it is thus a tragedy when it dies at the hands of humans. Kong earned similar pathos with his 18 minutes of screen time. If you want your monster to be more of a character than simply a menace, we need time to get to know it. You might even win an Oscar for your efforts if you do, as Guillermo del Toro did this year with The Shape of Water.
Jaws (1975) | Alien (1979)
Jaws and Alien are considered the most important creature features of the modern era — they helped create the summer blockbuster and, at the same time, brought the horror genre a prestigious allure (suddenly it was OK for A-list directors to tackle B-movie material). They also redefined the monster movie with their less-is-more approach.
Spielberg and Scott both wait until after the 60-minute mark to fully reveal their monsters, and it’s a very deliberate game of peak-a-boo that they’re playing. Scott’s delay allows audiences to witness the birth and growth of a slick and juicy-looking beast (Facehugger, Chestburster, Xenomorph); Spielberg has us sitting or floating in fear of the unknown, unseen “thing” lurking below the surface (sure, we know that Bruce the mechanical shark was the reason behind that decision, but it’s effective nonetheless).
We’re not meant to empathize with these creatures — we’re supposed to run, swim, and scream for our lives.
Filmmakers ever since have emulated this approach, but it doesn’t always work. It’s worth noting that three out of the four lowest rated movies in the data set delayed the full reveal of the monsters until after the 80-minute mark and featured their creations for less than three minutes each. The Relic (#33), Deep Rising (#34), and Leviathan (#36) all kept their monsters from audiences for way too long and then didn’t show them enough. There needs to be a reason to withhold your monster from the audience, because if not, it feels like the movie is cheating. It also helps if there’s something interesting going on while we wait for the monster money shot. Some interesting human drama, say.
Deep Rising is an especially egregious offender. It sets up a cool prehistoric boat-hating monster, shows us some tantalizing glimpses of tentacles, and then reveals a kraken-esque CGI fest that leaves us scratching our heads and saying “huh” rather than dropping our jaws and saying “wow”.
(Photo by (c) Lions Gate/courtesy Everett Collection)
Tremors (1990) | The Descent (2005)
Tremors trades out the Atlantic Ocean setting of Jaws for the wide-open expanses of the Nevada desert and features monsters (graboids) that attack from under the soil, rather than beneath the sea. The graboids are unleashed at the 33-minute mark of Tremors, and from there the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game between the stranded townsfolk and the smarter-than-you’d-think sandworms. We see more of the monsters here than we do the shark in Jaws, and we meet them earlier, but the storytelling principals remain the same. The townsfolk stand in for the audience, learning more about the creatures together, and what they need to do to defeat them, as more is revealed (think: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”).
(If you are looking for a fun double feature, watch Tremors alongside The Thing — number 12 in our data set. They are incredibly different films in tone and approach, but both have their big reveals at the 30(ish)-minute mark and both feature main characters who learn, from one crumb of new info to the next, how to defeat their beasties — i.e. very large explosions.)
The Descent swaps out Alien’s claustrophobic spaceship for a claustrophobic cave system in the Appalachian mountains, and replaces the earlier film’s xenomorph with subterranean humanoid crawlers who can attack at any time from anywhere. We don’t meet the crawlers until 56 minutes into the film, but each of those monster-free minutes is insanely tense. Director Neil Marshall traps his female crew of spelunkers in a massive cave system, where they get lost (of course) and have to endure darkness, uncertainty, and broken bones — all before the monsters show up. It’s another case of an isolated crew dealing with in-fighting, killer beings, and an environment where no one’s likely to hear you scream — with a very tough woman, front-and center.
Both The Descent and Tremors show that if you embrace creature feature tropes and add a unique spin, you may have a modern classic on your hands.
(Photo by ©Magnolia Pictures)
The Host (2007) | Attack the Block (2011) | It Follows (2015)
Recent monster movie favorites The Host, Attack the Block, and It Follows fully introduce their creatures within the first 25 minutes. With the mystery out of the way early, these films focus on character development and new monster details to sustain the tension — and the fact that their un-mysterious menaces are relentless attack machines. You know what you’re running from, now do not stop.
In Attack the Block, the monsters get their full reveal at the 24-minute mark, and the film settles in as a limited-location thriller. Nothing is really ever learned about the aliens attacking the titular high-rise, and they are only on screen for less than four minutes total; but that short screen time doesn’t matter because the story isn’t about them. It’s a coming-of-age story, really, with some awesome thrills and sci-fi legend-to-be John Boyega at the helm.
Similarly, we meet the title character of South Korean mega-hit The Host almost shockingly early — just 14 minutes in — and, more shockingly, in daylight. The first sighting of the creature and the following attack happen so fast that it’s almost impossible not to say “Wait, what?” as you’re picking up the popcorn you just dropped. Early creature attacks are rare, especially ones where we can see the attacker. Director Bong Joon-ho (Okja, Snowpiercer) is known for subverting genre exceptions, and he does it again here. We’re suddenly on edge, because the old rules do not apply.
While what “the host” actually is remains a mystery for much of that film, even as we get several good and long looks at it, the monster at the center of It Follows is almost fully explained when it is introduced 20 minutes in. Its original form is never sighted, and it is only seen in the human guise that it adopts, but the entity is grounded by rules, and has certain limitations, making it a creature in the creature-feature sense, and making it seem more alien than supernatural. While mystery is so often central to a horror movie’s dread, certainty is the root cause here: With those clear rules in hand, we know that the one thing this big evil will do is relentlessly follow its prey. Whenever a frame lingers a little too long, we know that it is coming.
(Photo by Jonny Cournoyer / © Paramount)
While the Tomatometer suggests that more monster equals better movies, dig a little deeper and the story is more nuanced. What the data seem to show most clearly is that — no surprises here — good ideas, good filmmaking, and, often, reinvention, are key. That certainly seems to the case for A Quiet Place, which now sits at 99% on the Tomatometer. In many ways, it’s a traditional monster movie in the Alien and Jaws sense: a mysterious, hidden and largely unexplained force is on the hunt. But it’s also a monster movie with its own spin. In the space that these characters occupy, no one can hear you scream — because screaming is the thing that will get you killed. It’s a novel twist and another step forward for the monster movie genre.
A Quiet Place is in theaters April 6.
A note on how we selected the movies: