Review: The Quiet Ones

2014/04/17 01:39:58 +00:00 | Becki Hawkes

After the success of 2012’s The Woman in Black, Britain’s iconic Hammer studios continue their recent return to horror production with another supernatural thriller, John Pogue’s The Quiet Ones. Like its predecessor, The Quiet Ones boasts both an atmospheric, distinctly British period-setting, and a pale, earnest young man who becomes entangled in dark forces beyond his control.

Despite its strong sense of location and more than capable cast, Hammer’s latest venture feels a little unsure of its own identity, relying far too heavily on intrusive, Paranormal Activity style forays into found footage. This is a shame, as underneath all the unnecessary camera-dropping and ten-a-minute scares, there’s actually quite an intriguing film here.

Loosely based on a real life Canadian experiment, Pogue’s film centers around the question of whether or not physical paranormal phenomena can be created by the human mind.  Here, the experiment is relocated to 1970's Oxford, with Jared Harris playing the project’s leader, Professor Coupland. Charismatic, driven, and egotistical, Coupland carries out his research with the aid of a close-knit band of star-struck students.  His latest obsession is teenage psychiatric patient Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), whom he believes is manifesting telekinetic powers. Newcomer Brian (Claflin) joins the group as cameraman, but soon comes to doubt both the ethics of the experiment itself, and whether or not Jane is really causing the “hauntings,” or whether she’s simply a vessel for a more sinister presence.

The relationship between the different members of the group and their professor is by far the most chilling part of the film, providing an eerily apt depiction of a claustrophobic, ultimately destructive type of cult mentality. Harris is magnetic as Coupland, by turns a manipulative, slightly seedy father-figure, a Messiah-like leader, and a vulnerable, desperate man. Meanwhile, Brian’s bubbling-under-the surface attraction to the enigmatic Jane is brilliantly portrayed by Claflin: the film may be set in the liberated 1970's, but it’s the secrecy, repression and hidden desires that really drive the narrative here.

In one particularly effective moment, quite early on in the narrative, Brian hesitantly presents Jane with some flowers.  The scene is almost comedic in its sense of foreboding: all audiences know that, in horror, naïve young men who fall for beautiful but probably-possessed woman are surely doomed. However, Claflin’s sensitivity and Cooke’s aura of innocence, melancholy and lurking danger ensure that the encounter is infused with some real poignancy.

Plot-wise, things are a little clichéd. The film wryly acknowledges its debt to classic possession flicks such as The Exorcist, but ultimately has little to differentiate itself from the films it plays homage to. However, what The Quiet Ones lacks in originality it makes up for in true Hammer earnestness: even the most ludicrous of situations are played with deadly seriousness. There’s a “running off to the library to solve everything” sequence that, while ridiculously contrived, is still beautifully reminiscent of an M.R. James story: think heavy, ancient books, lurking in the supernatural section of a dusty Oxford museum.  Harris also makes Coupland’s over-the-top ruthlessness seem surprisingly plausible, and fans of the recent Banshee Chapter - which drew on the MK Ultra experiments – may enjoy the film’s evocative depiction of a time when research was far less regulated than today.

However, the key question for any paranormal thriller is, of course, “is it scary?” Sadly, this is really where The Quiet Ones falls down. The cult-like relationship between Coupland, Jane and the students is chilling to watch, and the film boasts some effective set-piece scares, particularly those that rely on Jane’s mysterious affinity with fire.  Unfortunately, rather than playing to the film’s strengths and letting the tension slowly build, Pogue instead breaks up his narrative with frequent jump-moments and some unnecessary use of found footage. After the first fifty or so times there’s a scare that turns out to be nothing, the jumps start to lose their impact. Truly frightening films need room to breathe and grow into their scares, relying on pace and rhythm. Set to a too-fast tempo, The Quiet Ones simply loses the beat.

Nonetheless, underneath the irritatingly persistent loud noises and bangs, the latest addition to Hammer’s catalogue is still a fairly solid paranormal thriller. It’s far from perfect, and reminiscent of too many similar films, but its creeping claustrophobia, brilliantly kooky “science”, and Harris’s mesmerizing turn as Professor Coupland ensure that The Quiet Ones is worth a look.

Movie Score: 3/5