“What is the supernatural?” asks Jared Harris’ plummy Oxford university professor Joseph Coupland. Armed with the theory that ghosts and demons are the manifestations of negative energy in the human body, he plans to conjure a spook from the frail body of 19-year-old test subject Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke).
Coupland believes that, if he can only scare up the negative energy lurking inside his teenage guinea pig, he can expel all her cumulative trauma for good. And while his experiments – which variously include solitary confinement, loud blasts of glam rock, and shouting at her as she sits mesmerised at a mahogany dining table – are undeniably cruel, they’re a means to a justifiable end: “If we cure one, Professor Coupland grandly says, “We’ll cure them all.”
With cautious deans at the university cutting off the funding to his strange investigations, Coupland moves his test subject and equipment to a Georgian house in the middle of nowhere, cut off from all the means of communications you’d have expected back in 1974.
To aid him in his research, Coupland employs three young assistants: Brian (Sam Claflin), a vaguely religious chap who serves as the camera operator and the story’s protagonist, Kristina (Erin Richards), who is possibly a medic but doesn’t provide much in the way of medication, and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne) who twiddles the knobs and dials attached to the front of Coupland’s scientific paraphernalia.
As Coupland continuously plies Jane with drugs and subjects her to repeated moonlit interrogations, paranormal things begin to happen: doors slam in empty rooms, beds collapse and lights flicker on and off like guttering candles. Jane, it seems, is becoming ever more in thrall to a supernatural being called Evie, and like a spiritualist Captain Ahab, Coupland is fixed on evicting her, regardless of the cost to the safety of himself or his increasingly fractious assistants.
Jared Harris appears to have a whale of a time as the quixotic scientist, variously kicking over croquet sets in the grounds of the posh university (“They’re pulling the funding, the bloody cowards!” he rages), bossing his underlings about and providing increasingly spurious scientific explanations for supernatural occurrences.
Alone in a creaking old house, a weird sexual pentangle develops between them all, with Brian falling for Jane’s wan, demonic beauty, while Kristina engages in flings with Harry and the professor, and the professor displays faintly unsavoury affections for his test subject.
It’s a set-up that’s ripe for all kinds of tensions and intrigue, yet The Quiet Ones’ dramatic potential is repeatedly cast aside for jump scare after jump scare. Some of these are superbly effective, others come across as somewhat cheap (a trickster’s face against a window, or a pair of hands clapping in front of a camera lens), and a select few are downright illogical.
The premise of a central character who records everything on 8mm film, meanwhile, is a well handled, and allows for the inclusion of some first-person, grainy found-footage moments that contrast superbly with Mátyás Erdély’s sharp lighting and cinematography.
Had The Quiet Ones pared back the false starts and allowed the characters and story a little more room to breathe and develop, the net result could have been a more scary, even emotionally engaging film – Olivia Cooke is very good as the luckless test subject, and her plight is a terrible one on reflection: Coupland sees Jane as little more than a means to an end, and his cruel treatment (not to mention her growing affection for Brian) makes her all the more sympathetic.
Yet director John Pogue (Quarantine 2: Terminal), who co-wrote with Craig Rosenberg and Oren Moverman, refuses to let the plot settle for long enough to allow us to consider the weight of Jane’s plight or the poignance of her and Brian’s fledgling relationship. Such subtleties are sacrificed in favour of horror jabs, which more often than not rely on dark expanses of screen and an aggressive type of sound design which, after an hour or so, becomes distractingly hectoring.
To criticise a supernatural horror for containing too many leap-out-of-your-seat moments may sound churlish, but like an action film that emphasises explosions over plot, or even a comedy that relies on cheap slapstick rather than cleverly-constructed jokes, The Quiet Ones’ calculated attempts to inspire terror begin to feel too manipulative to be effective by the time the third act comes into view.
The Quiet Ones remains cautiously recommended as a titter-inducing night out at the pictures, however: it’s well-acted, nicely shot and possessed with enough ideas of its own to distinguish it from the supernatural chiller crowd. Had it balanced its scares with its plot more effectively, it could have been an even more effective piece of modern horror.