It's got a creepy old house, a possessed teenage girl, a scary doll, a mad paranormal researcher, hot babes in hot pants, and a semi-religious young man documenting everything with his charming 1970s camera. Is there anything that the latest Hammer film The Quiet Ones hasn't got?
I'd have to say it's missing a sense of purpose. But that doesn't mean it won't scare you along the way, and even entertain you as well. The premise, for example, is pure fun. It's the early 1970s, and a professor of abnormal psychology at University of Oxford named Coupland wants to prove some out-there theories about telekinesis. So he trawls local mental institutions for people who seem like they might be manifesting psychic energy, then tortures them with drugs and sleep deprivation until they start lighting things on fire with their minds.
The university has finally booted him out, but he's still got a couple of cute undergraduates who want to help with his latest experiment — a beautiful, goth young woman named Jane, who believes she's possessed by a powerful spirit she's named Evey. He also enlists the help of a local lad, Brian, to film what happens when Coupland and his students force Jane to "manifest" her telekinesis so she can get rid of it.
None of Coupland's theories about Jane's powers make any sense, but that's the point. He's dealing with something that may or may not be possession, but he's using pseudoscience to analyze it "scientifically." I love a movie where the "rational" perspective is occupied by people shouting about ESP, and the "religious" perspective is a hot young dude wearing a cross and researching ancient Mesopotamian myths. Plus, all the high tech equipment they use to analyze Jane's "brainwaves" is fantastically silly, and enhances the 1970s pastichey feel of this movie, which recalls both Carrie and Firestarter.
There's also a very clever bit of set design in the movie which really ratchets up the tension. Jane is kept in an observation room whose observation window is basically a hole covered by a sheet of metal. Every time anybody wants to see why she's screaming or burning or bleeding randomly, they have to lift open the hatch on that observation hole. That one little detail is perfect for activating all our fears about crazy shit flying into our eyes — as well as the even bigger fear of having to crane around to see WTF is going on in the room through that small opening.
So we've got all the window dressings that answer the question of how we'll be scared. Unfortunately, as I mentioned initially, the movie founders when it gets to the "why" part. What exactly is scary about Jane and Evey? Do they represent the vengeful spirits of girls destroyed by child abuse? By medical abuse? By Satanic rituals and evil 1970s cults? Is this a movie about the evils of mad science or the evils of mad religion? The plot jumps around so much that we're never entirely sure what's supposed to be scaring us.
The very scariest horror movies pick a metaphor and stick with it. Yes, jump scares will make us jump, and The Quiet Ones has those in spades. But to be truly terrifying, a movie needs to arouse real-life horrors (like medical abuse, say) to turn those jumps into something that makes your skin crawl and your nightmares seethe with new imagery.
Barring any kind of coherent metaphor, a horror movie needs to at least flat-0ut shock us with extreme levels of demented gore or mind-exploding, multi-layered weirdness. There need to be cultists eating cow guts or hippie Satan orgies or crazy machines that conjure monsters from beyond time or a spooky girl hanging people from the ceiling and skinning them with her psychic powers while chanting to her doll.
FYI, none of that shit happens in The Quiet Ones, though I wish it had. In fact, adding insult to injury, we never even find out who the "quiet ones" are, though it's hinted that they are the kind of people who might sacrifice babies — or at least do something more interesting than what Jane does.
What I'm saying is that The Quiet Ones doesn't work to earn any true terror from us. Yes it trots out a bunch of great ingredients for a scary movie, and yes it goes down the list of terrifying things from real life that haunt our ghost stories. But in the end, all we get is a little "psychoplasm" barf and some loud banging noises, coupled with some halfhearted efforts to remind us that female sexuality is inherently scary and scientists are inherently abusive, emotionless creeps.
Also, a lot of shakycam. Because of course Brian is filming everything.
I'm not sure why about horror stories and found footage flicks go so well together. Maybe it's about capturing the flavor of so many ghost stories that begin with the phrase "I heard that this really happened." And indeed, The Quiet Ones checks the "this is based on actual events" box on its Creepypasta ingredients shopping list.
Unfortunately, a brilliant horror movie is all about how you put those ingredients together. The Quiet Ones has baked up a perfectly serviceable horror cookie. It's just kind of stale.