by Matt Levine
Like countless horror movies, The Quiet Ones claims to be “Inspired by Actual Events,” proclaiming this proudly with the opening titles and even providing photographs of the real-life personalities over the end credits. Not only does the stranger-than-fiction origin of the story make everything that follows all the more incredible (hypothetically); it also acts as self-defense against criticisms that the material is well-trodden and clichéd, with the built-in response “But it really happened!” Whether fact or fiction, though, the events that transpire in The Quiet Ones never elevate beyond the level of horror-genre mechanics—the loud noises, dead-eyed children, and highly mobile home furnishings will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Conjuring or The Haunting in Connecticut.
Director: John Pogue
Producers: Tobin Armbrust, James Gay-Rees, Ben Holden, Simon Oakes, Steven Chester Prince
Writers: Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, John Pogue, Tom de Ville
Cinematographer: Mátyás Erdély
Editor: Glenn Garland
Music: Lucas Vidal
Cast: Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Olivia Cooke, Laurie Calvert, Aldo Maland
US Theatrical Release: April 25, 2014
US Distributor: Lionsgate
Though I’m not sure how exaggerated the film’s claims to veracity are, it’s easy to see what might have attracted plot-hungry producers to the events that took place: at Oxford in 1974, a controversial professor (Jared Harris) seeks to “cure” supernatural possession by harnessing negative energy. He ropes three of his students into accompanying him on his latest groundbreaking experiment: the isolation (imprisonment?) of Jane (Olivia Cooke), a female subject seemingly inhabited by a ghost named Evey. Unwisely holing themselves up in Evey’s spooky abandoned mansion, they perform tests on Jane in the hopes of proving the existence of supernatural possession—and, secondarily, maybe exorcising her as well. There are sexual jealousies and God complexes, trampled doctor-patient ethics and numerous bumps in the night, all leading to a plot twist that’s actually reasonably unnerving and sensible.
Occasionally, the film provides a fleeting chill and quickened pulse—one scene in which the mostly hapless investigators stumble through a haunted attic illuminated only by a camera light is especially unsettling. Too often, though, The Quiet Ones employs the dubious motto that sudden, deafening noises are the surest way to affect an audience—at one point, practically every edit seems accompanied by an ear-splitting pop or whoosh or some other gratuitous onomatopoeia. The clearest sign of an insecure director who needs to rely on assaultive sound effects to get under an audience's skin, such moments demean the film’s occasionally intriguing material by grinding it into trite, pre-fabricated tropes.
There is at least some aesthetic verve on display, achieved mostly by Brian (Sam Claflin), an initially skeptical cameraman hired to document their experiments. Though the character is a little too earnestly cherubic to be believable, he allows director John Pogue to subtly alternate between Brian’s own 16mm footage and the film’s non-diegetic cinematography—visual leap-frogging which might not really mean much, though it’s amusing to watch anyway. That said, such a found footage gimmick leads to a lot of shaky camerawork and sudden movements—cheap tricks used to approximate “horror” by too many lazy directors. Aurally, things are no better: Lucas Vidal’s soundtrack is the kind of insipid filler that’s meant to make us forget any music is playing at all (the better to focus on the deadening sound effects).
In other words, The Quiet Ones is firmly entrenched in forgettable B-horror territory—but there’s pleasure to be found in that terrain (at least for horror fans like myself). It hardly seems coincidental that the film was produced by Hammer UK, the same production company that spawned a number of low-budget British oddities in the 1950s and ‘60s--The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) being my personal favorite. The production house has had a comeback lately, initiating the above-average horror films Let Me In (2010) and The Woman in Black (2012). The Quiet Ones is decidedly not at the level of those two films, not to mention the exhilarating mini-masterpieces of the studio’s heyday—it rarely excels beyond an amusing time-filler, sporadically creepy but quickly forgettable. As a brilliant but demented scientist plumbing the depths of paranormal psychology, Jared Harris inevitably brings to mind J.J. Abrams’ excellent Fringe—a show on which Harris memorably starred as the increasingly maniacal Dr. Jones. It’s an unfortunate allusion from The Quiet Ones’ perspective, considering that the majority of hour-long Fringe episodes are more frightening and mind-bending than the paint-by-numbers rehash we’re offered here.