The Quiet Ones seemed to be the most intriguing amongst a recent string of otherwise by-the-numbers supernatural horror flicks. Granted, some of its marketing and aesthetics were similar, with even its name following a now-popular formula (see The Conjuring, The Possession, etc.). But the story here was different enough to draw me to the film. In the end, it batted around a lot of creative ideas, many of which fizzled out. The result was an interesting - but slightly underwhelming - drama masquerading as retro-horror.
Set in Oxford during the 70s, it follows the story of a college professor, Coupland (played by Jared Harris, who sci-fi fans might know from Fringe), who recruits three students to join him in undertaking an experiment with questionable ethics. The goal is to cure a purportedly possessed girl named Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), whom Coupland believes is merely mentally ill and exhibiting cognitive abilities not normally displayed by people, but which are being studied in the area of fringe science. Coupland hopes to thus disprove the existence of demons and the supernatural, and to cure Jane.
The story is very loosely based upon the Philip Experiment, a 1972 parapsychology experiment conducted in Toronto, the results of which were likely a combination of coincidence and fraudulence. But the filmmakers here etch in some additional backstory: not only does this experiment awaken something dangerous, but that something has connections dating back to ancient Sumeria and a cult using a demon sigil that is suddenly showing up on people's skin (haunted by a tattoo artist, perhaps?). There's definitely a measured creepiness enveloping things as the plot unfolds, but it's mostly ruined by tired horror tropes and silly jump scares. At times, the film even plays with the found footage/shaky camera subgenre that movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity popularized, but here it feels forced.
Alas, the sinister escalation we see throughout the first hour of the movie all unravels soon enough, leaving us with an ending that lacks both cohesion and climax. The inventive beginning simply doesn't go anywhere, and the audience is only teased with the shadow of what could have been a better film. Sure, it's interspersed with some old school horror staples - mysterious noises, a creepy malevolent doll, some Carrie-esque fire play - but we've seen it before, and it's not as unsettling as it once was.
On a positive note, the film had good actors. Olivia Cooke was perfect at depicting both the menacing and gentle sides of Jane. Horror fans might recognize her from the A&E series Bates Motel; indeed, she'll likely go on to bigger and better things in the genre and become the next scream queen. But her talent is wasted here. In a way, Jane Harper feels like a character that accidentally wandered onto the set from a better movie somewhere else. Harris, meanwhile, puts on a nuanced and believable performance as Coupland. Again, it's squandered talent, and I believe better writers would have known how to make it shine.
There are a few other ideas thrown around in The Quiet Ones: there are themes of exploitation, indoctrination, and some sort of subtle commentary on some of the spiritual and occult outlooks of the 70s. But the development of these themes must have gotten left on the cutting room floor. By the way, the meaning behind the film's title is never really explained.
Though perhaps arbitrarily unique among its peers, The Quiet Ones will likely still get lumped in with the other PG-13 contemporaries and forgotten soon enough. It's an example of what happens when writers come up with an appealing concept, but simply can't deliver when it comes to fleshing it out. All in all, this movie is a dark drama with a few eerie moments, not a nerve-rattling horror film. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
"The Quiet Ones"
Directed by John Pogue
Olivia Cooke, Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Erin Richards
Photo: "The Quiet Ones" official Facebook page