THE QUIET ONES Review: Hammer Time
When I was a kid, I cut my horror teeth in the 1970s on weekly Saturday afternoon UHF programs. One was called Creature Double Feature (Channel 48) and the other was a pair of shows – Mad Theater and Horror Theater (Channel 17) – hosted by a character named Dr. Shock (Joe Zawislak). Each week, Dr. Shock would introduce old horror movies, with comic sketches and magic tricks during breaks.
(Every TV market in America eventually had something like this. The buxom Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson made the format famous, and the Philadelphia market ultimately launched its own Saturday night version called Saturday Night Dead, with Elvira knock-off Stella as its hostess.)
The films that CDF and the Shock and Stella programs aired ranged from classic Universal Monster films (Dracula, Frankenstein) to cheesy 1950s Z-grade sci-fi (The Brain That Wouldn’t Die) to Godzilla movies from Japan. But there always seemed to be room for Hammer Horror films – movies with alternate tales of the classic Universal monsters, starring the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The Hammer films were as much a part of my cinematic childhood as annually aired classics like The Wizard of Oz, but they were much more special to me then because I was the only one in my family with any interest in them. Everyone in my family introduced me to something, but these Saturday scares I found on my own.
So when I saw Hammer credited with the production of a new horror film – John Pogue’s The Quiet Ones – I wasted no time buying a ticket.
Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) is a professor at Oxford teaching a class that debunks the supernatural. He shows a film featuring a young boy who seems to be possessed by an evil spirit, but Coupland is certain the boy’s issue is some schizophrenic/telekinetic combination, not a supernatural possession, and that the affliction can be cured. One of his students, Brian McNeil (Sam Claflin), shows particular interest in the study and, given his hobby of filmmaking, agrees to become Coupland’s documentarian of his work with his latest subject, Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke).
Jane is a young woman with no recollection of her past, other than Coupland somehow saved her and can cure her of the same thing that ailed the young boy. In Jane’s case, her “alter ego” is named Evey. When the university cuts Coupland’s funding, he self-finances the continuation of his work with (on) Jane. Moving to an abandoned house in the country, Coupland, Brian, Jane, and Coupland’s romantically-involved assistants Krissi and Harry (Erin Richards and Rory Fleck-Byrne) continue their work. But as time passes, Evey becomes a stronger force and questions arise about Coupland’s motives. Complicating matters is the fact that Jane and Brian feel something of a spark between them.
If ever a film was worthy of a Participant Trophy, it’s The Quiet Ones. It tries so hard to integrate that old Hammer magic into a retro-modern post-Conjuring film, but it doesn’t quite make it. Still, it tries really hard, and it gets some things right.
It’s set in the early-1970s England. This is perfect for a modern Hammer horror film. Like its decades-old predecessors, it’s a period piece but not overtly so, and in this case it’s easily recognizable by the fashion and the music (not disco, but Slade‘s “Cum On Feel the Noize,” later remade and popularized in the US by Quiet Riot), with a setting that’s perfectly European enough.
The film is excellently cast. Harris is a great choice to play the obsessed professor. He carries himself with appropriate arrogance, yet he turns on a dime to become an obsessed scientist when the scene calls for it. Cooke offers a Christina Ricci-like, full-faced porcelain doll look, combined with the ability to play a soulful someone trying to break free of that doll’s confines. Claflin, recent of his role as District Four stud Finnick in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is handsome but not pretty (see Catching Fire), strong but vulnerable (not Catching Fire), and someone that Jane might have actually had a chance with had she not been so, you know, troubled. Rounding out the cast are the lovers, Krissi and Harry. They are important enough to the story because the experiments couldn’t be carried out by just Coupland and Brian, but more importantly, they look good, particularly the former.
The film is also chock-full of effective jump scares – those scenes when something loud or shocking (or loud AND shocking) happen out of nowhere to jolt you out of your seat.
For as hard as it tries and for the things it gets right, it just doesn’t quite try hard enough or get things quite right enough.
Those jump scares are all the film knows. Pogue is a one-trick pony in this area. Jump scares, like jump-shots in basketball, are an important part of the game, but you have to bring more to the floor. What that more is is fear and atmosphere. Having fear is something more than being scared; it’s deeper, more visceral. Not once did I feel, or did I think the character’s felt, actual fear. Were there scares? Of course, for me and for them. But there was never fear. Once a scary moment passed, it was business as usual. As for atmosphere, the film lacks it completely. An old British house is a good start, but you need something more than one locked room (where Jane lives) and an attic to be atmospheric. It’s a horror film, not Downton Abbey.
The film also doesn’t try hard enough with its screenplay (despite, or perhaps because of, four writers). The construct is terribly flimsy, even for horror movie standards, which in this case leads to confusion. Honestly, I had significant plot questions as soon as the film was done, and even after letting the details stew overnight I still had them.
Plus, many events happen for no other reason than to set up those jump-scares. And while Coupland’s actions suggest a greater motive, the reveal is so late in the film, if you haven’t already predicted it, it goes beyond “twist” to “whatever.” There is also at least one … significant? … relationship that is established that begs the question, “Why?” This is a question that grows as the film proceeds and is never answered, suggesting that the development and/or backstory of the relationship was cut from the final edit or was added for titillation purposes only.
I don’t regret having seen The Quiet Ones in the theater. To its credit, some of those jump scares are incredibly effective, and the filmmakers’ use of the surround sound is some of the best I’ve heard from the genre. But unlike walking into a haunted house, where I know I’m simply trying to get from Point A to Point B with as many scares as possible, when I walk into a horror film, I need more than scares; I need a complete movie. I still hold Hammer in high regard, but this film is better served for a Saturday afternoon watch at home.