Characters with disabilities can make for more thrills and chills

Deaf actor Millicent Simmonds plays Regan in A Quiet Place Part II. Picture: Paramount
Deaf actor Millicent Simmonds plays Regan in A Quiet Place Part II. Picture: Paramount

A character who is caught up in a tense or terrifying situation in a horror movie or thriller has it bad enough. But if it happens to a person with a disability, it makes things even worse. And don't think filmmakers don't know it.

As A Quiet Place (2018) and its recently released sequel show, having a character or characters with a disability can add an extra frisson to a horror movie or thriller. In the Quiet Place films, the predatory alien creatures are blind, so you would assume most people to have a big advantage. However, the critters are big and strong and fast and their hearing is exceedingly sharp, so making the slightest sound could lead to your swift and grisly demise.

One of the main human characters, young Regan (played by Millicent Simmonds) is deaf, as in the actress who plays her. This has both advantages and disadvantages in the dangerous world of the story. She and her family can communicate with each other in American Sign Language (ASL) so they don't have to speak, but this isn't much use in some situations (such as darkness). And, of course, not being able to hear means being that much less aware of when there's danger looming. The second film, in particular, makes use of this, with the sonic perspective shifting between sound and silence to reflect the perspective of the hearing and the non-hearing.

An obscure attempt to cater to the hard of hearing horror hound was the low-budget Deafula (1975), a vampire movie shot in Portland, Oregon in "Signscope" using American Sign Language. Deaf writer-director Peter Wolf plays the title character, There's a music score and a voiceover track (including a bad Bela Lugosi imitation) translating the dialogue for the hearing but the pace can be slow as the actors sign, making the scary scenes unintentionally amusing at times. Still, it's an interesting novelty: at the time of writing you could check it out on YouTube.

Blindness is another disability that has been used to good advantage in thrillers and horror movies. It's relatively easy to depict, the audience can be aware of things the character is not, adding to the suspense and allowing for scares, and the heightening of the blind person's other senses - such as hearing and smell - can compensate for their lack of sight.

The 1971 thriller See No Evil (aka Blind Terror) had Mia Farrow as a blind woman who returns to her uncle's farm to discover, gradually, the members of her family have been murdered. We in the audience can see what it takes her a while to realise. Not only that, the killer left behind a necklace which she comes across and which he returns to retrieve - and obviously, he won't hesitate to kill her. It's a tense, pretty straightforward suspense story.

An earlier, better-known film has a more resourceful if still vulnerable heroine and a more convoluted storyline. Wait Until Dark (1967), based on the play by Frederic Knott (who also wrote Dial M for Murder) stars Audrey Hepburn as Susy, a recently blinded woman still adjusting to her lack of sight.

She lives in a basement flat with her photographer husband who unwittingly came into possession of a doll filled with heroin and brought it home. He is called away on a fake job by three crooks, led by the sadistic Roat (Alan Arkin), who perform an elaborate confidence trick to try to retrieve the doll from her. Susy's heightened hearing helps her figure out something's not right and eventually there's a memorable showdown in which she knocks out all the lights in the apartment - in which she's been locked - to give herself a fighting chance. While the plot is extremely contrived, the performances and some clever twists and shocks make this memorable. Apparently on its initial release theatres turned off ALL the lights they legally could to heighten the impact of the climactic encounter.

Not being able to speak obviously makes calling for help impossible when under threat. In The Spiral Staircase (1946), a serial killer seems to be intent on knocking off people with disabilities. Will the mute Helen (Dorothy McGuire) - whose silence was caused by the trauma of her parents' death - be the next victim? And who in her small village might be after her? This is a suspenseful thriller adapted from the book Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White - that staring eye seen in close-up is haunting.

Characters who can't move - in whole or in part - are even more vulnerable. An indelible scene in the film noir Kiss of Death (1947) has grinning, giggling killer Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark in his film debut) terrorise a wheelchair-bound woman then push her out of her apartment and down a flight of stairs. It's not gory or graphic but it packs a wallop.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) stars Barbara Stanwyck as wealthy, neurotic, bedridden Leona, who thanks to a telephone technical glitch overhears two men discussing a plot to murder a woman and eventually realises she is the intended victim. Lucille Fletcher adapted her radio play which was shorter and far more effective: there are flashbacks and padding that dissipate the genuine, if gimmicky, tension.

In Silver Bullet (1985), based on a Stephen King story, the title's meaning is twofold: it's a motorised wheelchair used by teenager Marty (Corey Haim) and also the traditional method to deal with the lycanthrope responsible for a series of murders in a small town. Marty, despite his fractious relationship with his older sister, is a sympathetic character and his paraplegia increases his peril.

The similarly affected Franklin (Paul Partain) in The Texas Chain saw Massacre (1974) is the most obnoxious of a group of young folks who find themselves in the title pickle. Will he - or anyone - live through the ordeal? As the tagline put it, "Who will survive and what will be left of them?"

Having characters - and actors - with disabilities might seem exploitative but it's representation for a sometimes neglected group of people and can add to, rather than subtract from, thrills and scares. Ultimately no one can be considered safe.

This story Adding a heightened sense of fear first appeared on The Canberra Times.