Rarely has a movie been less aptly titled than The Quiet Ones, a horror flick where roughly 85 percent of the scares consist of loud crashes, smashes, bangs and thuds. Cranking the sound levels abruptly from zero to 11 certainly makes moviegoers jump in their seats, but there's a difference between being flustered and being frightened. This latter-day product of renowned UK horror brand Hammer Films has all the finesse of a county-fair scarehouse, and it's about as scary.
That's unfortunate, because the script — cowritten by director John Pogue — starts with a juicy little retro scenario that gives the filmmakers opportunities to riff on the history of their genre. In 1974, Oxford University prof Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) recruits a small group of students to help him summon and control a poltergeist, believing the supposed spirit to be a manifestation of one person's latent psychic power.
This is a well-worn parapsychological theory, but Coupland approaches it with a grasp of experimental methodology that places him among the maddest, most arrogant and bone-headed of all mad, arrogant and bone-headed scientists in the horror tradition. Convinced he'll win a Nobel Prize by harvesting the "negative energy" from a troubled young woman named Jane (Olivia Cooke), he locks her up in a spooky old house and proceeds to aggravate the hell out of her. The entity that lives inside her takes the bait, with predictable results.
Am I spoiling anything by revealing that Coupland's theory is disastrously wrong? Nope, because (a) horror movie tradition decrees it so, and (b) Pogue and co. fail to generate a single sliver of suspense or ambiguity. Harris' plummy diction and dedicated set chewing keep us mildly entertained but deprive his character of even the slightest credibility. Cooke brings unsettling tonal shifts and genuine pathos to her role, but long before Jane progresses from self-mutilation to creepy-doll mutilation to manifesting satanic signs on her body, we know what really ails her. Perhaps characters' insultingly frequent references to The Exorcist tipped us off.
The film's ostensible hero is Brian (Sam Claflin), a young cameraman enlisted to document the experiment. Drawn to Jane, he finds himself trying to protect her from Coupland's dangerous provocations. It's a character dynamic semi-cribbed from the classic The Haunting that fizzles because neither Brian nor anyone else in the movie feels like a real human being. (One central character, the requisite Hot Girl [Erin Richards], is little more than a delivery device for amusingly garish Nixon-era fashions.)
Brian does have a vital purpose, though: He holds the film camera through whose lens we view roughly a third of the movie, allowing Pogue to have his found-footage cake and eat it, too. (Oren Moverman of the Paranormal Activity franchise was another cowriter.)
Hence the true unquiet spirit in The Quiet Ones isn't a ghost, ghoul or demon: It's the venerable analogue medium that the film industry has finally laid to rest in an unmarked grave, without so much as a token mention in the Oscars' "In Memoriam" segment. As Scott Tobias notes in his review on the Dissolve, Pogue presents artifacts of celluloid such as "scratched-up frames, clapperboards ... and splice jumps" as if they're "as creepy and jarring in form as the demonic evil the film is documenting."
If dead mediums terrify you, you might get a good scare out of The Quiet Ones. (Also check out the upcoming Jessabelle, featuring ungodly VHS tapes!) The rest of us are likely to view this cookie-cutter effort only with nostalgia for a bygone era of better horror movies.