Perhaps the most terrifying thing about The Quiet Ones is how blatantly the Hammer horror film rips off other, better features – in fact, for long stretches during its muddled and flat middle act, it’s nearly impossible to not wish that you were watching The Conjuring, a recent outing that does everything that The Quiet Ones wants to do with all the style and flair lacking from the latter production – with little regard for possible repercussions. That kind of recklessness is chilling on its own, that lack of care and originality, the kind that will likely be ripped to shreds by plenty of audience members and critics alike.
The Quiet Ones just isn’t original, at least, it’s not original until it tries to be (really tries!) far too late in the feature, when it suddenly slaps on a series of revelations that sound cool and weird and scary in theory, but make zero sense in practice. The John Pogue feature actually does have a creepy and interesting premise to drive it – as long as you don’t immediately exit the theater once you see the words “inspired by actual events” pop up on the big screen – but that material is ultimately abandoned in service to a story that attempts to scan as chilling and twisted and shocking, but only comes across as derivative and dumb.
The film’s basic (and apparently true-ish?) premise centers on an experiment to prove that supernatural occurrences are nothing more than manifestations of addled and troubled, but totally normal human brains. Jared Harris leads the feature as the creepy-sexy Professor Joseph Coupland, who has dedicated his life to debunking anything classified as “supernatural,” from ghosts to demons to poltergeists, through studied and careful intellectual considerations. Just kidding! Coupland’s experiments are bloody and brutal and probably illegal, no matter how many shots of consent forms we see, but they sure do seem personal in nature (cough cough).
Coupland has got some high-minded ideas for his latest experiment – attempting to prove that the deeply ill Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) is not the victim of spirits and sprites, but her own mental instabilities – and he hopes that by curing Jane, he can cure anyone with mental illness. It’s a big job! Which is why he secures the assistance of a pair of good time college students (Erin Richards and Rory Fleck-Byrne, who look good in the film’s seventies-era garb, but are given little else to do) and a local camera nerd Brian (Sam Claflin, who easily dismisses any notions that he’s a movie star with his lackluster performance) to work on the experiment, document it, and totally disprove the supernatural and cure all mental illness along the way. It’s just too bad that Jane is probably in need of much more than the talking cure can offer. (It’s also inopportune that everyone wants to bang her.)
After a relatively flat and uneventful opening, the film’s second act devolves into a series of numbing tropes that would be almost funny if we knew they weren’t intended to be nefarious and chilling. Let’s move our experiment to this abandoned old house! Let’s give Jane a creepy doll! Let’s stick Brian in an isolated garden shed! Let’s not really tell anyone what we’re doing! These are all great ideas! Yay!—oh, no! Scary thing! Loud noises. Loud noises. More loud noises. What was that? Another loud noise. By the time the film tries to tie up loose ends, provide revelations, and answer a little thing called plot questions, its audience will likely have lost interest.
And that’s too bad – because the ideas that finally bubble up in the film’s final twenty so minutes are genuinely chilling and wickedly entertaining. Of course, because so many of these ideas come out of nowhere, very little of it fits together, and The Quiet Ones is ultimately a head-scratcher, not a heart-jumper.
At least there’s Jared Harris to enjoy, who is lively and really sort of fun in the feature as the mercurial Coupland, who is believably intriguing even as he’s obviously screwed up in the head. (Harris even gets to exhibit perhaps the most British expression of anger put to film in recent years: kicking a croquette set out of frustration, and just driving the whole damn thing across a lawn at Oxford.) The Quiet Ones should certainly be better, but at least it managed to snag the kind of leading man who makes the most been-there and done-that of horror offerings feel (even momentarily) terrifyingly entertaining.
The Upside: Jared Harris’ clever performance, some genuine chills in its third act, an interesting spin on the sexual politics of horror stories, the seventies setting looks and feels authentic.
The Downside: A derivative and uninspired first and second act, the use of the overused “creepy doll” trope, jump scares with no pay-off, Sam Claflin is a snooze of a leading man, a confusing and muddled final explanation packed with utter nonsense.
On the Side: The film claims to be “based on true events” – at least, the experimental stuff – and it supposedly lifts from the “Philip experiment” conducted in Canada back in the seventies.