Few things fill me with quite so much terror as the legend “Based on a true story…” before a horror film.

It’s like an icy hand squeezing my bowels, dread gnawing at my entrails and not in a good way.

I know that the film I’m about to watch will, like a Conservative Culture Secretary of State’s expenses claim, have only the sketchiest relation to reality and probably be a lot less exciting. The plot will be hackneyed, illogical, the acting dodgy, the drama largely invented, the conclusion dissatisfying. For every film like The Girl Next Door or Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer that genuinely disturbs there’s a From Hell (Johnny Depp as a crime-fighting, Ripper-hunting relation of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert the Chimineree Sweep), a Borderland or The Entity. Though Borderland is worth watching just for tubby hobbit Sean Astin’s turn as a cheerfully sweaty American ex-pat member of a human sacrificing, Mexican voodoo death cult. And who among us has never idly fantasised about hacking to death a character from Boy Meets World.

Capitalising on the goodwill earned from 2010’s Let The Right One In remake, Let Me In, and 2011’s vastly underrated Wake Wood, as well as the global success of 2012’s The Woman In Black, Hammer Films latest retro horror, The Quiet Ones, is a stylish little chiller that draws loosely on 1972’s infamous Philip Experiment, which saw Toronto-based academics try to manufacture psychic phenomena in an attempt to prove poltergeists are an unconscious product of the human mind.

Relocating the action to 1974 Oxford University, charismatic, unorthodox psychology professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) recruits young cameraman Brian (Snow White And The Huntsman and Catching Fire’s Sam Claflin) from the university’s AV department to help him document a controversial experiment he’s working on.

Coupland believes that ghosts and paranormal activity are merely psychic manifestations of emotional and mental trauma and that this “negative brain energy” can be forcibly induced, harvested and destroyed, curing the patient of their illness in the process. Which is why he and his favourite students Krissi (Erin Richards of Open Grave) and Harry (Vampire Academy’s Rory Fleck-Byrne) have the profoundly psychologically disturbed Jane (Olivia Cooke) locked in a makeshift cell and subjecting her to Guantanamo levels of torture and sleep deprivation, blasting Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize at her 24/7.

The orphaned victim of childhood trauma, Jane believes she is possessed by the malevolent Evey, a spirit with a penchant for pyromania who lives in the fire-blackened plastic doll she takes everywhere. Drawn to the vulnerable young woman, the shy, naive Brian agrees to help and, when the team loses the support and funding of the university, relocates with them to an isolated country house where Coupland’s interest in Jane proves less and less purely scientific. As the attraction between Brian and Jane grows, Evey becomes increasingly destructive, her attacks reaching beyond the confines of the experiment into the team’s everyday lives, demonic writing appearing on the fragile Jane’s body. Despite Coupland’s insistence on rationality, that Evey is all in Jane’s mind, it soon becomes apparent that there may be a simpler, darker, supernatural explanation…

Remarkably understated and subtle right up until the moment about two thirds in when it spirals like a wounded Spitfire into its shrill hysterical final act, The Quiet Ones is an enjoyably predictable, tense, atmospheric, slow-burning little shocker with a resolutely old-fashioned feel to it, it’s nostalgic ‘70s setting recalling Hammer’s heyday and fond childhood memories (for me, at any rate) of its Hammer House Of Horror TV series particularly in Erin Richards’ conceited bell-bottom and hot pants clad research assistant Krissi who manages to be sympathetic while completely unlikable.

It doesn’t do anything particularly new or fresh but director John Pogue (who previously helmed the nowhere near as bad as you think it’s gonna be Quarantine 2) is smart enough to know he doesn’t have to, building a cloying, insidious atmosphere of dread that unnerves and primes his audience. Disappointingly though he can’t resist mixing in a little overly familiar found footage (via Brian’s ever present camera) with the more traditional action and scares forcing the viewer to suspend a certain amount of disbelief.

It is 1974 after all. Where is Brian getting his film developed so quickly? How is he shooting sync sound without any evidence of a mic or recorder? How is he lighting any of this? Who cares? We’re watching a movie where Jared Harris’ louche, slightly mad scientist imprisons a mad girl in an attic and forces her to listen to Glam Rock in order to manufacture a ghost. How Brian gets his footage is really of secondary concern. You either go with it or you don’t although the pseudo-documentary footage does have a nicely authentic 16mm look and texture, all scratchy frames and lens flare, a welcome antidote to the usual homemade gonzo porn video aesthetic of most found footage flicks while the percussive, booming soundtrack echoes Robert Wise’s classic The Haunting.

In the role that Christopher Lee might have played in the ‘70s, Jared Harris is clearly having a ball as the arrogant academic and ladies man, infecting his students with his messianic zeal while Erin Richards brings a frosty nip to her underwritten eye candy role. The boys fare less well however, Fleck-Byrne particularly unmemorable as a disposable erection while Sam Claflin is called upon to do little other than moon after the film’s female protagonist as he does in every role he ever has (Snow White And The Huntsman, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and it’s upcoming sequel Mockinjay). The film belongs however to the phenomenal Olivia Cooke of Bates Motel and The Tenant Of Crickley Hall who brings a melancholy vulnerability to her role, her large-eyed, doll-like fragility undercut with demonic fury and white-hot madness. It’s an electric, barnstorming, 5-star performance in a solid 3-star film.

Creepy and subtle, The Quiet Ones is a satisfying, intense little chiller.


VERDICT: [rating=3]

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