MOVIE REVIEW: The Quiet Ones
debbie lynn elias
Hammer Films is iconic when it comes to the history of film and horror films in particular. Thanks to a steady stream of B-movies with stunning production values, talents like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing became household names. Revived and reinvigorated in the 21st Century, Hammer has been the name behind such recent hits as “The Woman In Black” starring Daniel Radcliffe and the Matt Reeves directed “Let Me In” adapted from the Swedish smash “Let the Right One In.” Furthering the 21st century thrills of psychological horror, Hammer now brings us THE QUIET ONES.
With a script by Oren Moverman, Craig Robinson and veteran screenwriter John Pogue, the latter of whom also directs, THE QUIET ONES is inspired by a true story and true events that happened during the 70's when great social science experiments became “the thing”, so much so as to result in Departments of Parapsychology being created at colleges like Princeton and UVA and all over the United States. For Pogue, the excitement of bringing THE QUIET ONES to life stemmed from the fact that it is based on something that was real, most notably, the “Philips Experiment” of 1972 in which a group of Toronto based researchers attempted to prove that ghosts, demons and evil are all manufactured within the human mind. For moviegoers, Pogue’s excitement translates into an intriguing, all consuming, psychological thriller that pits science against the paranormal, evoking discussion and thought, some real jump out of your skin frights, as well as giving Hammer and cinema as a whole, the 21st Century Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in Jared Harris.
Joseph Coupland is a well respected psychology professor at Oxford University, albeit engaging in some rather unorthodox methods of teaching with experimentation on human subjects as a tool. It is Coupland’s hypothesis that his current subject, a young woman by the name of Jane Harper diagnosed with “severe mental instability”, has created an alter ego/ evil manifestation named Evey purely through her own telekinetic powers. Further, that if he can prove his theory, it may hold the key to curing mental illness. As part of his study and treatment, Coupland locks Jane in a closed an secure cell-like bedroom, blasting loud music to keep her awake and thus from manifesting Evey. To insure the authenticity of the project, Coupland hires a local amateur cameraman, Brian McNeil, to document the experiment. Joining in the project are Coupland’s two student assistants, Kristina and Harry.
Thanks to complaints by the staid Oxford residents forced to enure the blasting of music 24/7, screams and shrieks of Jane that can be heard across blocks, Oxford pulls the plug on Coupland. Undeterred in his pursuit of academia (which clearly borders on obsession) and forced to now self-finance the venture, Coupland leaves Oxford and takes Jane and his team to a new location, a remote centuries old country house that does anything but scream inviting on seeing its bright red front door.
While Brian films and Harry assists Coupland in situating Jane as well as all sorts of monitoring equipment, Kristina makes quick work of checking out the house. Phone doesn’t work. Some lights work and some don’t but flickering of electricity seems constant, construction and renovation make for tricky navigation among the various rooms and floors, and the attic is a black hole jam packed with “stuff”.
Plunging into experiment mode, Brian’s camera rolls, capturing not only monitors, readings and Jane, but sinister and sexual happenings amongst the players, with truths and horrors revealed, blood splattering and all culminating in a battle of science and the supernatural.
Jared Harris is masterful as Professor Coupland. Assuming an air and persona through chain smoking randiness, Harris walks the rapier line of “Is he good? Is he evil?”, Harris effectively instils the “What’s lurking beneath the surface?” energy. He is engrossing and intriguing, luring us into Coupland’s experiment as willing participants. According to Harris, “It was a really delicious role. You weren’t quite sure whether or not he was the good guy, was he the bad guy. He’s definitely the antagonist. What is the reason behind what he is doing? How far is he prepared to go? A lot of those things, which I liked about it, they weren’t so definitively racked up. But when you get to the end of the story he’s got this crazy plan about what he’s gonna do . . . It’s nuts! But I loved it. I just loved that he becomes more and more twisted as he’s trying to hang on to what he wants to be true, he has to keep convoluting his logic to try and maintain it and he becomes more and more tortured.” Adding to the depth of Harris’ performance is his own study into the 1970's experiments and research which he undertook once cast as Coupland, giving him a foundation from which to create the character and explore emotional avenues of reality and fantasy.
As cameraman Brian, Sam Claflin brings a naivete and blindness to the parapsychology process that helps ground the film. Essentially the POV for the film, Claflin serves as the eyes of the audience allowing us to experience the unfolding events just as Brian is. Finding the perfect balance between his most well known performances to day - the young priest Philip in “Pirates of the Caribbean and Finnick Odair in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”, Claflin himself sees the similarities and differences. “[Brian] is very softly spoken, barely spoken, kind of introvert which is similar to Philip in that sense but also finds his voice through the journey as does Philip in “Pirates of the Caribbean”. And Finnick is completely the polar opposite. He’s a sort of confident extrovert. . .I knew that I wanted to explore something completely different. I wanted to do a different genre. I wanted to do something that was kind of embedded in reality a little more. I know this is a supernatural film and therefore you could argue is it real, but for me the character was very very real. I could relate to him a lot more than I could in some sort of fantasy movie, for example. We have a lot of similarities so that was something I was very keen to explore.”
As Jane Harper/Evey, Olivia Cooke mesmerizes. She is both affecting and effective. With a wide-eyed sleep deprived hollow stare, Cooke finds moments of life and emotion both as evil incarnate and as a young girl falling in love with Claflin’s Brian.
Handily assuming the role of the seductive ingenue, Kristina, is Erin Richards. Epitomizing at times the “blonde bimbette”, she exudes sex appeal. Hand in hand with Richards is Rory Fleck-Byrne’s Harry. Unfortunately both characters and the performances are rather one-note, serving more as window dressing than substance.
Written by Craig Rosenberg with subsequent draft by writer/director Oren Moverman, the script then came to writer/director John Pogue who was captivated by Moverman’s work, cinching the deal for Pogue’s involvement. “What I [then] brought to the project was trying to elevate the genre elements as much as possible so that it didn’t feel like we had this great premise and these interesting characters and then sort of standard spook horror scares. I tried to make the scary elements as psychological and minimalistic as possible to kind of reflect what the story was about.”
Although the film may be called THE QUIET ONES, there is nothing quiet about Pogue’s direction as the film is technically polished with high production values that belie the minimal budget. So important to the construct of THE QUIET ONES is the cinematography with a blend of 16mm verite footage lensed by the character of Brian within the film, and a 70's 35mm filmic grain for the unfolding story. Calling on cinematographer Matyas Erdely, the two designed a tonal bandwidth creating a “found footage omniscient camera hybrid but the found footage is real time. So you’re watching a movie but you’re also watching real time found footage.” Wanting the effect to be “subconscious and psychological”, Pogue and Erdely “spent all of our time in pre-production trying to create a visual grammar for the audience so that they would identify with Sam Claflin’s character’s point of view, so that the audience is ‘making this film’. . .[W]e created moments were we were in 16mm and then we would go back to Olivia [Cooke], for example, in omniscient footage - 35mm - for which we put lots of layers of grain on. Then we go back to the 16mm just so [the audience] would have a comfortability with this back and forth. . . [W]e created these moments so that the audience by the end of Act One would be fully immersed and thus scared, so when that camera is knocked over we’re feeling the same fear that you hear in Sam Claflin’s voice. Then as the movie progresses you start to feel that even more and more until you get into the attic sequence so that you’re one of the experimenters in the attic as opposed to objectively watching. I was trying to create a sort of subjective feeling.” Pogue more than achieves the desired result.
And yes, much of the verite footage was actually shot by Sam Claflin who, according to Pogue, had great input into camera angles and placement for emotionally compelling POV. For Claflin, “What was amazing was I had the opportunity to sit behind the camera so much that I did sort of feel like I was the director’s right hand man a lot of the time.”
Hand in hand with the cinematography is Matthew Gant’s production design. With judicious yet strong use of vibrant color punches, mood is effectively captured, while interior and exterior room design affords opportunities for Erdely to capitalize on light, shadow and POV. A wonderful marriage of design and construct.
As a director and viewing the film as “scientifically analytical”, for Pogue editing was crucial. Calling on Glenn Garland, they “originally thought that the 16mm sequences would be much more continuous than they actually are. What happened was, even though we did a good job of making them continuous, we were a little bit slow and it wasn’t quite as exciting.” As a result the pair made the decision to cut-up the verite footage which then “lent to certain aesthetic as to how we ended up editing the entire movie. It actually made it much more of a roller coaster as opposed to a slow burn, up and down.”
Surprisingly key to the technical beauty of THE QUIET ONES is the sound design. Eclectic and diverse in composition, the sound creates its own level of emotion and quite often elicits more scares than visual surprise. Working with composer Lucas Vidal, Pogue made the decision early on to avoid using any music other than practical music. “I want to create sound design from the machines that we use in the movie and let that be the music and let that be the sound. What we did was we recorded the oscilloscope, the brain scanning machine, all the amplifiers, the feedback from the microphones, the little clicking sound that the EEG and the EMF make, we took all of that and we created music out of it, Lucas did. . .We tried to avoid genre horror as much as possible and just have it be about these sounds are sort of creeping in to create a sense of terror and that the sounds were practically sourced from the environment so that you felt that era, you felt those sounds. I felt like that was much creepier with the subtle approach.” Trust me, creepy doesn’t do some of the sound design justice. Scaring the hell out of you is more like it!
Although there are some script holes and unanswered questions, and yes, some of the unavoidable horror tropes, at the end of the day, there’s nothing quiet about THE QUIET ONES. It screams frightening terror.
Directed by John Pogue
Written by Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman and John Pogue
Cast: Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne