“What is the supernatural?” Oxford professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) posits the question to his students in that vaguely condescending, more or less rhetorical way that bespectacled smarty-pants Englishmen do in the movies. Coupland has some strong opinions on the subject, strong enough to justify confining young Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) to a single room and essentially torturing her for her own ostensible good. Jane seems to be the source of some rather nasty paranormal activity—”Her brain waves are off the charts!”—and Coupland’s aim is to harvest her “negative energy” through séances, isolation, sleep deprivation and other punishing techniques, to extract the bad vibes the way a surgeon might extract a tumour.
After his superiors at Oxford cut their funding for the project Coupland decides to whisk Jane and a team of student volunteers away to some creaky old country manor where they can continue their work without the interference of the academy or anyone with a lick of common sense. Jane’s “manifestations” and their accompanying revelations about their origins come in dribs and drabs over the course of The Quiet Ones. In the meantime, Coupland gradually proves his scummy ruthlessness, some randy youths get busy, and hunky cypher Brian (Sam Claflin) captures the whole process on 16mm—the story is set in the ’70s. Brian likes to watch, and not much else. He’s something of an empty vessel, our Brian, a Christian, if we’re to go by the tiny cross hanging from his big neck, his vacuousness/innocence making him vulnerable to mad scientists and evil spirits alike, and to the allure of poor Jane, those eyes, that gorgeous smile, the undulating 15-foot demon tongue slithering out of her mouth.
The Quiet Ones is, we’re told, “based on true events.” What appear to be photos from said true events—an experiment conducted by the Toronto Society for Psychical Research in 1972, which you can read about on the webs—are displayed at the film’s end, as if to say, “See! What’d I tell you? True events, guys!” Had scenarists Tom de Ville, Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman and director John Pogue adhered more closely to the source material they’d likely have made something far more intriguing and provocative, but this Hammer production’s many concessions to genre only serve to render The Quiet Ones more, well, generic, predictable, and a little dull. Among those concessions is some dopey looking CGI and an entirely tokenistic use of found footage. It’s a shame because there are items of interest here: Harris, most obviously, a fine actor too rarely used to full effect (though he was wonderful in seasons three, four and five of Mad Men); Coupland’s use of peculiar technologies like Kirlian photography and Brion Gysin’s dreammachine; the dissonance between the film’s hoary setting and the deployment of Slade and T-Rex records to keep Jane awake; and the battling parapsychological theories regarding the source of paranormal activity. Perhaps somewhere during the film’s genesis someone wanted to make something more sophisticated—then the evil spirits took over.