1 Hr., 45 Mins.
A Quiet Place in the Country September 7, 2020
hen it comes to horror, sometimes the less literal and ultimately decipherable the better. Fear is such a primal and imprecise feeling. A horror movie can be more effective when it gives us some but not all of the answers — not because of writerly neglect but a purposeful effort to keep some details either a little or very much in the dark. Agreed-on greats, like Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist
(1973), Suspiria (1977), and The Blair Witch Project (1999), are great in part because they got this right. Once they ended, we continued speculating about its details, what might have happened after the closing credits started to roll. They didn’t try to explain everything offered in painful detail. They knew the power of encouraging the viewer to fill in the blanks, prolonging anxieties and a viewer’s having to dwell in their fears a little longer than a few hours.
A Quiet Place in the Country (1968) gets this right, too. I don’t think the film, a psychological horror film from Elio Petri with a taste for the experimental, is especially scary. But it figures out this hard-to-pull-off push-pull — of being intelligible but also suitably mysterious and jarring — unusually well. It’s interminably unnerving. It mostly takes place in what appears to be a kind of dream world. It doesn’t fully click until the last few minutes; that isn’t to say, though, that what semblance of an explanation we get during them fuse together to make an altogether be-all and end-all conclusion.
A Quiet Place in the Country follows an abstract painter, Leonardo (Franco Nero). As the action starts in the movie, he’s looking for a property that lives up to the title of the film. His current humble abode (it's in Milan) is too busy to properly focus. He tasks his girlfriend/curator, Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave), with tracking down a so-called perfect fit. They quickly decide this big but battered villa in the countryside is just right. It’ll have to be renovated, but isn’t creation Leonardo’s forte?
A little after moving in, Leonardo and Flavia both notice an offness. At worst, this place is haunted. And at best, it simply has, to borrow Twitter parlance, “bad vibes.” While staying there, Flavia is nearly electrocuted to death while trying to take a bath. While idling in bed one evening, a neighboring bookcase falls over “by itself,” almost crushing her. In a horror film, one cannot move into a roomy, haunted-slash-badly-vibed home and not investigate. The trouble is that, once Leonardo starts digging into some of the home’s history (the woman who used to live here apparently died violently), he not only loses much of his artistic inspiration — he also appears to be slowly drifting away from sanity, as if it were a shore, his demons an ocean. A Quiet Place in the Country is forever awry — like there was a screw loose in the editing room. Its kiss-off is that that cockeyedness is meant to itself function as a sort of clue.
Does A Quiet Place in the Country belong to the haunted-house subgenre, or the “Descending Into Madness” subgenre? Petri, whose next movie was the comparatively forthright Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), a black comedy fascinated with law enforcement’s dark heart, decides finally that either characterization would be too simplistic. A Quiet Place in the Country is jittery, cerebral horror — busily and colorfully photographed and fitfully scored by the always-reliable Ennio Morricone. (His music might be the best part of the movie: it honks, buzzes, squeals, patters — it’s creepily onomatopoeic.) The film unsettles; arrested unease is rarely so prettily aestheticized. B+