There's a battle brewing over the future of horror, and whether you know it or not, you are taking a side with every ticket you buy. For decades, horror has been building a bad reputation thanks to countless sloppy entries in franchises that offered little more than loads of gore. But a few filmmakers are digging in to show audiences that horror can be something more, something both haunting and poignant. With The Quiet Ones, director John Pogue is favoring story and human drama over buckets of blood, and the results are a film that is as creepy as it is compelling.
Inspired by real events, The Quiet Ones nests its tale of terror in 1974 England, where a respected professor at Oxford University risks his reputation (and his life) to work out a disturbing experiment. Jared Harris stars as Professor Joseph Coupland, who believes that a long-held belief in possession and poltergeists is a basic misunderstanding of how the human mind operates. Coupland suspects that a mentally ill mind can essentially manifest the paranormal activity associated with hauntings. He aims to prove it by curing Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), a young woman who has been plagued by such phenomena for as long as she can remember.
Joining him on this quest are two eager-to-please Oxford students named Krissi (Erin Richards) and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne), as well as Brian (Sam Claflin), an uneducated camera operator whose interest in the experiment quickly transforms into a crush that could get him killed. While Krissi and Harry hook up and gush over Coupland's genius, Brian is thrown by the apparent cruelty of these experiments, which deprive Jane of sleep and demand she invite this vicious entity in, where it can burn and abuse her. Brian's empathy for poor Jane soon puts him at odds with Coupland, spurring a human conflict apart from the mayhem of the narrative's untamed spirit.
Pogue has brought together a great cast. Harris's stern expression exudes authority, and his growling delivery establishes him as an intimidating and charismatic force. It's little wonder these young people--Jane included--go to such dangerous lengths to win his approval. Richards breathes some welcomed intelligence into the stock role of the pretty girl who toys with ghosts to her own detriment. Fleck-Byrne lends solid and playful support as the would-be scientist too easily distracted by his scantily clad colleague, Krissi. And Cooke is mesmerizing as Jane, deftly pivoting between a crazed and possessed creature to a haunted young woman desperate to make friends. But Claflin is the heart of the film, and the cast member that makes the drama work.
Not so long ago, movie critics were writing off this English dreamboat because of his painfully forgettable role in Snow White and the Huntsman, where he was saddled with the role of Kristen Stewart's bland love interest. Then came The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, where Claflin won scads of fans as the cocky and curious Finnick Odair. For The Quiet Ones, Claflin carefully plays down his hunky good looks with messy brown hair and sweaters that dutifully cover his brawny body. He gives Brian doe-eyes, and a vibrant concern rips across his features as Jane cries out in pain or fear. Brian's desire to be her hero is heartbreaking, because this is a horror movie after all. While happy endings are too much to hope for, Claflin's performance gives the film a welcomed emotional depth that is more often associated with the horror of the 1970s, like Jaws or The Exorcist, than the modern horror with its boundary pushing violence and too often two-dimensional characters.
Admittedly, The Quiet Ones isn't as soul-shatteringly terrifying as Jaws or The Exorcist, but Pogue does set up a film that is tense and, at moments, truly terrifying. The film boasts both some chilling visual effects, unnerving build-ups, effective jump scares, and best of all a disturbing narrative enhanced by its basis in real life. All in all, The Quiet Ones is a satisfyingly spooky horror offering that tenderly unspools its tension while offering a narrative that is truly enthralling. It's a promising addition to Hammer Films' continued resurrection, preceded by 2012's Woman in Black, and to be followed by the upcoming Jack The Ripper tale, Gaslight.