‘Azrael’ review: Samara Weaving, a silent gimmick, and lots of gore

What has A Quiet Place wrought? The alien-invasion horror hit that used silence to amp up tension in its rural setting was brilliantly executed. Because the movie’s ravenous extraterrestrial creatures chase sound, the characters don’t speak aloud, and even their audience feels the pressure not to scream. A Quiet Place‘s success with critics and audiences not only spurred a sequel (A Quiet Place Part II) and a prequel (A Quiet Place: Day One), but also opportunistic imitators, eager to take the muted gimmick to make their unaffiliated movies stand out. 

Last fall, writer/director Brian Duffield hit Hulu with a strikingly similar concept in No One Will Save You, in which Kaitlyn Dever stars as a country girl plagued by invading aliens while she doesn’t say a word. With Christmas came John Woo’s deeply dismal action dud Silent Night, in which Joel Kinnaman plays a vengeance-fueled anti-hero who, because of a scarring act of violence, is unable to vocalize — but for no apparent reason, no one else talks around him either. Now comes Azrael, a horror collaboration from Cheap Thrills director E.L. Katz and You’re Next writer Simon Barrett. Despite the noteworthy talent attached, it too leans hard into this scream-free gimmick that can’t make up for its flimsy storytelling. 

What’s Azrael about?

Written by Barrett and helmed by Katz, Azrael stars Samara Weaving as the titular young woman who is not only named after the Angel of Death but is also part of a post-apocalyptic cult living deep in the woods, under a vow of silence. Blood-red text splashes across the screen to succinctly introduce the big rule of the cult: Don’t speak; or else evil will come. 

In a rugged village, the cultists worship the wind that rips through their drafty church bedecked with crucifixes. They communicate with each other through stern glances and huffs of air. It seems a relatively peaceful place, save for their ritual of human sacrifice. Silence or not, something needs to be fed to the vampire-like creatures that shamble through the woods seeking human blood.

Selected by her community to be fed to the Nosferatu-looking ghouls, Azrael is bound to a chair, where she is left like that poor goat in Jurassic Park — a meal to be enjoyed tied up and alive. But this clever girl breaks her way free, not only setting the ghouls upon her traitorous community but also hunting them down so she might live. It’s a tale full of graphic violence that’s best described as gloppy, but the plot is achingly thin: Survive. 

Azrael feels like a short film stretched beyond its limits. 

Barrett and Katz have histories with horror anthology franchises ABCs of Death and V/H/S, which stitch together a collection of creepy shorts with some tenuous throughline or framing device. Azrael feels like it began as a short pitch that wasn’t developed to its full potential before being unleashed on the world. 

Part of the problem is that the plot line is thinner than Weaving’s well-groomed brows. Despite plopping in a boyfriend (Candyman‘s Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) for Azrael to try to rescue, a camp leader who has serious glower power (Katariina Unt), and a hapless passerby bewildered by her predicament, there is nothing substantial to this story. The lore around what happened to the world, what the creatures in the woods are, or how the cult came to be all are largely irrelevant. And frankly, that’s fine. Those details don’t matter to Azrael as she’s just trying to get through the night, so they don’t need to matter to her audience. But there’s something crucial lacking here: character. 

Because Azrael has no dialogue, her actions become her primary character definition. And that leaves us with very little. She likes to kiss her boyfriend. She made him a bracelet from twigs. And she doesn’t want to be eaten alive by forest vampires. It’s relatable, but not much to get invested in. Azrael is a gesture toward a Final Girl archetype — sweet and resilient, but with no depth to make her come alive. 

Basically, Barrett and Katz take for granted the audience might want to understand the heroine they follow through a grueling night of mayhem and murder. Or maybe they thought casting Weaving would carry with it enough audience goodwill to paper over the lazily scripted protagonist. After all, genre fans lapped up every wicked smile, snarky rejoinder, and curse-laden rant Weaving delivered in The Babysitter, Guns Akimbo, and Ready or Not. But Azrael isn’t like these movies.

This silent premise rob audience’s of Weaving’s sharp comedic timing and her undeniable charm as a foul-mouthed badass. It’s not a frolicking collision of playful plotlines and ultra-violence. It’s a grim and grisly religious pilgrimage that’s gleeful in gore yet just not fun. 

The silent gimmick suffocates Azrael. 

In A Quiet Place, the family couldn’t vocalize safely, but they did talk to each other through sign language. This gave the actors a way not only to express their character’s thoughts, but also a grounded world from which to build the supernatural scares. In Azrael, the cult theatrically scowls or smiles or sighs heavily to get their points across. The result is a near-comical pantomime, reading as a crude reenactment of silent film acting. All the performances here rely on stricken faces, stern brows, or silent screaming. It’s off-putting and goofy more than impactful or frightening. 

Perhaps Katz was striving for an atmosphere that felt far from grounded in the familiar, vibrating instead with raw emotion, heady atmosphere, and terror. But with no dialogue nor any defined characters to cling to, plus an episodic structure nakedly designed to favor sloppy slays over story, this religious horror flick feels horrid but humdrum. There’s not enough for audiences to sink their teeth into. While full of blood and slicked with religious symbols, Azrael plays like an empty parlor trick — not even a cheap thrill. 

Azrael was reviewed out of SXSW 2024.

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