The Unheard director Jeffrey A. Brown was immediately drawn to the story of a once-Deaf woman recovering her hearing, alone in a decaying Cape Cod house, because of its setting: HIs previous film, 2019’s The Beach House, also shot in Cape Cod. And he was drawn to the Deaf storyline because of his family.
“Restoring hearing was something that was kind of personal,” he said at a Q&A following the film’s world premiere Wednesday at the Boston Underground Film Festival at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. “There’s a lot of deafness and hard of hearing in my family. So that was something that just I just responded to very instinctively.”
The Astoria, New York-based filmmaker shared the stage with Cambridge-based screenwriter brothers Michael and Shaun Rasmussen, who are best known for 2019’s alligator thriller Crawl and are longtime visitors to Cape Cod. They know both sides of the Boston area’s favorite region for weekend getaway.
Is Cape Cod Safe?
In the summer and early fall, the tourist season, families flock to Cape Cod for beaches, ice cream, lobster rolls and mini golf, perhaps catching glimpses of the Kennedy compound as they peddle past.
But in the off-season, when rental houses empty out, the countless tall trees take on a skeletal quality, the marshes and bogs invite grim speculation, and the nights turn black as ink. (A character in The Unheard says addicts sometimes squat in empty homes, and as an occasional visitor to The Cape, I hear the same talk.)
“The seeds for this came out of our friend having a house on the cape in Wellfleet, and we’d go out there every summer,” Michael Rassmussen explained in the Q&A. “And one year we went out in the offseason, and it’s so different. Night and day. We thought, ‘This would be a really cool place to set a horror film.’
“It’s just so quiet, like you can hear like you can hear a foghorn way out there. It just felt like it should be something that deals with sound, and so that was sort of how the story came to us.”
The Unheard deals extensively with sound: Its sound design veers confidently between subtle and pulverizing, and the Brattle audience got to enjoy it in 7.1 surround sound. The film arrives next week on Shudder, which means BUFF audiences may be among the lucky few to see it on a big screen.
How to Watch The Unheard
Because Shudder recruited Brown to direct the Rassmussens’ script with an eye toward streaming it, Brown designed The Unheard as a film “you watch by yourself late at night,” he said.
When we meet our lead, Chloe, she is visiting Boston from Baltimore to take part in an experimental procedure that may restore her hearing. (She’s played by an excellent Lachlan Watson, who is gender nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, though Chloe is presented as a young woman.)
We learn that Chloe lost her hearing from meningitis about 10 years ago, when she was eight — and that at roughly the same time, her mother disappeared. Other women in the area have disappeared over the years as well.
And that’s just adding to the overall creepy vibe of everywhere Chloe goes, as she fixes up the cape house with plans to finally sell it, a decade after she and her father moved out. Birds move in strange patterns, silhouettes appear in the house across the marsh, it’s cold all the time.
Slowly, many seemingly unrelated threads of the plot all come together, thanks in part to glitchy VHS videos Chloe watches to remember her mother, and make the house feel less empty. The urgent stillness of the film’s sound, prevalent as Chloe hopes her hearing will return, gives way to sharp, violent noise.
The film plays at times like a Bizarro version of Coda, the 2022 Oscar winner for Best Picture: Both are set in unvarnished versions of coastal Massachusetts, examine the dynamics of families dealing with deafness, and feature young female protagonists, soon to enter their twenties.
But while Coda lives by salt-of-the-earth optimism, and is buoyant and persistent enough to win over anyone with a heart, The Unheard challenges you at times to sit through the gloom, uncertainty and occasional violence, before rewarding you with bold cinematic experimentation and genuine shocks.
The Brattle, a theater just a stone’s throw from Harvard University that feels mysterious and fog-strewn even in the warm months of the year, may have been the ideal setting for the film. But if you can arrange to watch it alone in a shambolic beach house, that should be effective, too.
The Unheard arrives March 31 on Shudder.
The Boston Underground Film Festival continues though Sunday, March 26.
Main image: Lachlan Watson in The Unheard.