Director: John Pogue
Writer: Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, John Pogue, Tom de Ville
Producer: James Gay-Rees, Simon Oakes, Tobin Armbrust, Steven Chester Prince, Ben Holden
Stars: Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Olivia Cooke
A university research team confronts a dark force while testing a psychology theory on a girl purportedly possessed by evil.
In 1972, Dr. George Owen of the Toronto Society for Psychical Research began conducting what came to be known as “The Philip Experiment,” a theory tester designed to see if he and eight colleagues could “invent” an imaginary ghost. How does one create the phantom of someone who never actually existed? Owen postulated that paranormal phenomena were actually manifestations of the mind, and not otherworldly influences from a realm beyond reality. He reasoned that if his group concocted a supernatural entity in their collective imagination, their subconscious brains would fill in the blanks in the form of perceived poltergeists and spirit sightings.
Owen and the others brainstormed the biography of Philip Aylesford, a fictional English aristocrat from the 17th century who committed suicide following the unjust execution of his mistress for witchcraft. The “Owen Group” spent the next year partaking in fruitless séances until phony Philip finally made contact by knocking beneath their fingertips. Subsequent summonings allegedly resulted in flickering lights, levitating tables, and a variety of occurrences lending a possible kernel of credence to Owen’s hypothesis about the power of the unconscious mind.
The tale of “The Philip Experiment” makes for an innocuous anecdote about how supposed supernatural encounters might be rationally explained. Beyond the preceding paragraphs, there isn’t much else to relay regarding this “true story.” Which is why the extent to which “The Quiet Ones” uses it as the source for its “inspired by actual events” claim is merely including a professor who theorizes that paranormal phenomena is the fabrication of a telekinetic mind. Everything else about “The Quiet Ones” is as fictional as Philip, including a series of staged vintage photographs accompanying the end credits as a means to further flick at the disbelieving notion that “The Quiet Ones” might have actually happened.
In 1974, Professor Joseph Coupland of England’s Oxford University recruits a trio of twentysomethings to assist him in his experimental treatment of young Jane Harper. Locked in a room inside a dilapidated country manor, Jane believes she is possessed by the malevolent spirit of Evey, a four-year-old girl who supposedly burned in an occult-related house fire. Joseph believes Jane’s affliction is merely the offspring of a troubled psyche. If he can find a way for Jane to channel that negative energy into a removable manifestation, Joseph just might cure all similar mental illnesses forever.
Close to two-thirds of “The Quiet Ones” is a mostly “is she or isn’t she” mystery exploring Jane’s peculiar psychosis/possession. Filmgoers would be terribly disappointed if it turned out that the terror truly was all in Jane’s head though, so the challenge facing “The Quiet Ones” is filling the first two acts with a slow build that isn’t predictable. That is a challenge the film does not surmount when it becomes a matter of waiting out the inevitable.
Since the script itself mentions “The Exorcist” in passing dialogue (and a lead character’s last name is McNeil, possibly in tribute to the same book/movie), it is not unfair to make a comparison to the mother of all demonic possession and shaken religious belief epics. “The Exorcist” also devotes more than a full hour to a gradual climb before Regan finally stabs herself with a crucifix while speaking in tongues. But that climb nonetheless engages the audience through human drama. Chris nervously struggles with her daughter’s worsening condition. Father Karras suffers an ongoing crisis of faith. And Regan’s progression from perky adolescence to embodiment of evil elicits both horror and heartbreak.
Conversely, Jane is introduced as already psychologically tormented in “The Quiet Ones.” The audience joins Jane’s treatment immediately before its final phase as young cameraman Brian is recruited to chronicle the actual experiment. The real focus of the film should be on Jane or on Joseph, but the viewer is tethered to Brian’s point of view, which is nowhere near as interesting. Instead of journeying on meaningful character arcs like those mentioned for “The Exorcist,” the ramp-up for “The Quiet Ones” consists mainly of straight exposition as everyone matter-of-factly sets up the experiment.
What “The Quiet Ones” does have by way of relationship developments are fruitless romantic subplots doing more to muddle the story than to enhance it. Researcher Krissi is basically a distracting sexpot. Her boyfriend/engineer Harry is given little to do aside from occasionally turning a knob. By not seeing much of Jane without her perpetual red-eyed pout, Olivia Cooke is underused in a portrayal that is standard fare for a vacant-stare mental patient.
Jared Harris genuinely stands out as the professor in charge of the research. His screen presence commands a naturally fearsome intelligence tainted by a slight hint of mania, ready to explode on a hat drop. His character also demonstrates an uncannily ghostlike ability to unexpectedly materialize in doorways at opportune moments, like whenever someone needs a shoulder-turning surprise.
Such jump scares are in heavy supply with “The Quiet Ones.” Bearing the Hammer production moniker, the film does evoke some of the famed studio’s hallmark gothic gloom, aided ably by the seventies setting. Yet “The Quiet Ones” never manufactures a jolt that isn’t induced by a quick cut or ear-covering audio.
Although used sparingly, the digital FX enhancements are unconvincing. And framing a sizable portion of the runtime as “found footage” misses the immersive value of the format by making the camera a mere recording device. The climax amps up the atmosphere considerably, even with its odd reliance on multiple fistfights, but “The Quiet Ones” stumbles overall as a misguided conception of how to satisfyingly present a contemporary thriller.
Review Score: 45