More than other genres, horror movies invite us to pay attention to filmmaking itself. We watch the edges of the frame, tense up along with the music, and hold our breath for the slightest footfall or door creak. As a quick exercise, spend some time watching trailers on the iTunes movie trailers page . You will see plenty of previews for horror movies, I assure you. Despite everything they are enduringly popular. While every movie must employ the screen, for most it is a limitation. Horror revels in that limitation.
To tell the truth, I have not seen a lot of horror films, and none in the theater. So when I went to see The Quiet Ones, I was a little worried that I would spend the entire movie hiding behind the chair in front of me. I shouldn’t have been worried.
Oxford professor Joseph Coupland is running a series of experiments on a young lady named Jane Harper. Jane has spent her life being shuffled from foster care to asylum because of her frightening and uncontrollable telekinetic abilities. While many are convinced that Jane is possessed by a demon, Coupland believes that the bizarre phenomena are caused by her mind as a means of coping with some traumatic experience in her past. Coupland has promised Jane that he can make her better, and subjects her to various experiments, including sleep deprivation and stress, in an attempt to make her “manifest,” by which he means, “exhibit telekinetic abilities.”
Most horror films have an “innocent,” a character who is pure of heart and so maintains some level of protection against whatever evil arises in the story. Our innocent is Brian McNeil (Sam Claflin, of toothy-grinned Hunger Games fame). Brian is a quiet young man whose life is spent behind a video camera. Oh, and (is it even worth mentioning?) he wears a cross around his neck. Coupland hires Brian to document the experiment by wandering around with his video camera and filming the proceedings, which includes everything from table seances to Jane taking a bath. Apparently, Coupland wanted the experiment very well documented.
The film opens with the experiments already under way, as Coupland lectures his class on the supernatural. His disdain for such un-scientific explanations is evident in every skeptical eyebrow-wag. He comes across with such pomposity that we cannot wait for him to be proven wrong.
Despite the story beginning to pickle in its own juices almost from the start, these early scenes are full of potential. The setting is fun and interesting. The year is 1974, and cigarette smokes wreathes every scene. Coupland begins his experiments in a house on campus at Oxford University until neighbors weary of the noise and bizarreness. The characters are introduced as young Oxford students, perhaps brilliant, perhaps merely curious. Their sort of passing interest in the project – almost a dismissal – actually makes their involvement more interesting. No one on the crew, except for the newcomer, Brian, is surprised at the appearance of otherworldly phenomena. Coupland’s experiment was designed to observe these phenomena. All of the characters believe that what they are witnessing has a scientific explanation.
Even Jane herself is under the impression that she is only sick. She succumbs to the experimentation willingly, convinced that Coupland will be able to tell her what’s wrong with her. Horror stories abound where experiments are done on an unwilling subject. It was a little disconcerting to watch the inverse of that: a character who is genuinely excited when psychic weirdness starts happening.
The central tension in the film comes from the fact that several of the characters become convinced that Jane Harper is possessed by a demon, rather than telekinetic, as each subsequent “manifestation” becomes less and less explicable from a “scientific” point of view. Unfortunately, from the very first scene, we are already hoping Coupland’s theory will be proven wrong. In that sense, we are ahead of the characters. Dramatic irony is a strong foundation for narrative tension, but when Coupland finally admits that he was mistaken, the movie hardly pauses to sweeten the revelation. By that point, there are devil-worshipers, cults, reels of old, incriminating footage, young love, and teleplasm all clamoring for screen time, and the story collapses under their combined weight.
Up to a certain point in any story, there is always a chance that it may turn out well. Bad beginnings have sometimes been redeemed by good endings. For the first hour and a half of The Quiet Ones, I tried to convince myself that the movie was more clever than it seemed and that I would be sucked in by the last, tense moments. But when the twist came, it was so bland and foreseeable I just lost all hope for the story. Brian, in a brief fit of intellectual pursuit, visits the library and discovers that what they have been dealing with all along is an ancient Sumerian spirit, worshiped by a 20th century cult called the Quiet Ones. And thus, the name of the movie is explained and then unceremoniously shown the door. It never comes up again. At that point, I could have easily left along with it.
The horror genre comes equipped with its own tropes, stock characters, and story structures. Perhaps, to someone who is more familiar with the genre than I am, The Quiet Ones is a clever mixing of old ideas, like shuffling the deck after the trick has been done. The problem is that none of it works. The magician has flubbed the trick and left the cards face-up all over the floor.