Review: The Quiet Ones (dir. John Pogue, 2014)

The Quiet Ones

The Quiet Ones
USA/UK, 2014
Director: John Pogue
Writers: Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, John Pogue and Tom de Ville

Review by N Emmett.

It is 1974, and Oxford professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) is trying to cure Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), a teenager who believes herself to be possessed by a spirit named Evey. Coupland argues that Jane is mentally ill, and has roped two university students – plus a cameraman, Brian (Sam Claflin) – into helping him with his unorthodox methods of treatment.

When Oxford University pulls funding from Coupland’s experiment, he decides to take it underground. He relocates his subject and cohorts to a remote building in which he can take total control of the proceedings. While filming the experiment, Brian is faced with the possibility that Jane is genuinely possessed – and that Coupland may have less than altruistic reasons for experimenting on her.

The seventies were a good decade for the occult. Fiction gave us The Exorcist, The Omen and The Stone Tape, while the ranks of allegedly real paranormal incidents were swelled by the Enfield poltergeist, the Amityville haunting and the 1972 Philip experiment. The Quiet Ones is based loosely on this last case, which attempted to create a spiritual entity from a fictional character, but succeeds in recreating the overall flavour of occult literature of the period. The opening titles show various early modern woodcuts of devils, the kind of images that will be familiar to anyone who has read contemporary popular tomes such as Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil and All his Works.

Also incorporated into the film are the kinds of quasi-scientific attempts to explain seemingly supernatural phenomena that flourished during the decade. Coupland insists that Jane’s apparent possession is psychological in origin, but yet his theories draw upon a number of scientifically dubious concepts such as telekinesis and ectoplasm. The reason his experiments are driven underground, the story implies, is because they occupy an untenable hinterland between science and the occult.

qui4Coupland’s makeshift laboratory quickly turns into a teeming hotbed of emotions, in large part due to the professor’s callous treatment of the emotionally disturbed Jane. When she is transported to the house, she is blindfolded like a hostage; later on, Coupland burns her arm with a candle in an attempt to make her negative energies manifest. As cameraman, Brian is forced with a choice between doing his job by documenting these goings-on, or intervening to put a stop to it all.

Throughout the experiment Jane is subjected to intrusive observation, as when Brian peers through a hatch in her door while she undresses. Yet, the voyeuristic element in this scene is undercut by the fact that Jane knows she is being watched – when Brian first opens the hatch, she is staring right at him.

Jane is not the sort of hapless waif typically associated with possession films, but something more ambiguous. She shows a girlish and naiveté aspect, while also demonstrating a definite qui3sexual drive – one which is part of her personal agency, rather than the workings of devils. Her development may have been arrested by her troubled upbringing, but she appears to be undergoing an adolescent sexual awakening during the course of the experiment.

Olivia Cooke is cast well in this role. Although the she first appears to be portraying the character as merely another sullen Wednesday Addams-alike, her performance takes on a new aspect whenever she breaks into a childlike smile – a sight which is disconcertingly innocent amongst the squalid and sordid surroundings.

The film has trouble maintaining this psychologically stormy atmosphere, and towards its end the plot elements start slipping into place rather too neatly. Ghost stories thrive on ambiguity that allows the audience to fill in the blanks, but The Quiet Ones takes its cue from the mystery genre: the entire backstory is spelt out by the end, giving all of the principal characters a distinct set of motivations with little left to the viewer’s imagination.

qui2A more subtle flaw is that the film never quite gets a handle on the visual portrayal of its supernatural elements. The Quiet Ones has no truly iconic image, no equivalent of Regan’s head rotating, Sadako crawling from the television, or even Damian smirking at the camera. Instead, it repeatedly falls back on ten-a-penny jump scares; in one ludicrous scene, meanwhile, a giant CGI tentacle shoots out of Jane’s mouth. Regrettably, this is not the only usage of obvious computer graphics to be found in the film.

More successful in its blending of 1970s and modern horror motifs is the film’s usage of the found footage aesthetic. As the lead character is a cameraman, large portions of The Quiet Ones take the form of his film. Screenwriter Tom de Ville originally planned for the entire movie to use the found footage approach, but the final product wisely alternates between an omniscient camera and grainy 16mm scenes purportedly shot by Brian. The Quiet Ones manages to make good use of the creepy potential offered by subjective and ambiguous point-of-view shots without turning into a tiresome home movie, as so many found footage films do.

qui1The Quiet Ones has conceptual creases which could have been ironed out: had its makers placed a little more trust in the intriguing supernatural themes and resisted the temptation to spell things out for the audience, the results would have been that bit more haunting. Nevertheless, fans of seventies occult cinema – flaws and all – may appreciate this attempt to bring the cycle back for modern audiences.

It is ironic that The Quiet Ones was produced by the revival of Hammer, a studio which originally went under in large part because it failed to engage with the post-Exorcist horror scene first time round. Better late than never…