The Quiet Ones is a relentless jump scare generator, making a lot of noise in attempts to startle, but not putting a lot of effort into creating an unnerving atmosphere. The production from the recently revived Hammer Films is successful in its appropriation of a spooky 1970s sheen, but unlike The Conjuring – which comes to mind at every darkened turn – it fails to find the right mix of ambiance and aggression. The little suspense that builds up in the paranormal possession tale is consistently released in an uninspired and benign string of “Boo!” moments. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a banal conversation that’s interrupted by someone sneaking up behind you and blowing an air horn.
The trendy “Based on actual events” title appears after the opening credits, a nod to 1972’s Philip Experiment, in which a group of researchers attempted to demonstrate that supernatural entities were manifestations of the human mind. In the film, this belief is held by Oxford professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris), who is convinced he can purge the phantom that torments Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) and unlock the secret to curing mental illness. Coupland enlists naive cameraman Brian McNeil (Sam Claflin) to document the experiment that involves an array of low-fi equipment, dark rooms, and blasting the ironically-titled Slade song “Cum on Feel the Noize” on a loop.
Shut down by nervous university administrators and angry neighbors, the research team, which also includes photogenic students Krissi (Erin Richards) and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne), relocates to a genre-appropriate country estate. There, the group is sufficiently isolated in a home with cracks in the walls, a dusty staircase, faulty wiring, and a scary attic. As Jane’s ghostly alter-ego Evey makes more frequent and increasingly antagonist contact, sexual tension between Brian and Jane deepens and Professor Coupland’s motivations come to light.
A debate pitting speculative science against occultish forces is an interesting premise, but sadly The Quiet Ones isn’t interested in careful contemplation. Director John Pogue doesn’t allow us to think too deeply about anything between choreographed jolts that grow tiring. Sure, there are certain expectations with haunted house and haunted soul films, and while Pogue and his co-writers Craig Rosenberg and Oren Moverman are aware of them, they go overboard in service to the genre while ignoring the story heft that would give the scares more weight. Not even transitions between scenes are immune from the cacophony, with popping Champagne corks and Brian’s habit of clapping his hands loudly to mark scenes in his documentary footage adding to the nuisance. I guess the research team used up too much of their budget on film stock and rock albums to afford a clapboard.
Harris does what he can with the role of Coupland, his affectations and authoritarian tone suggesting a diabolical Gothic horror villain. But no number of cigarettes smoked or co-eds wooed can mask the character’s purpose of providing dialogue and presenting ideas that move the flimsy plot forward. Cooke also stands out as the tortured Jane when allowed rare quiet moments, but in the end is just another black-haired, pale-skinned weirdo. Claflin is a bore as the one-dimensional reluctant hero, while Richards and Fleck-Byrne are only there to be placed in peril or set off false alarms.
While it has its merits, including an authentic look that integrates faux documentary and handheld footage well, The Quiet Ones is a toothless mishmash of several better fright films. Posing too seriously to be campy and too ambivalently to affect, the goings-on don’t add anything of note to well-worn tropes and give no reason to spend time with this film over numerous other archetypal options.