The words “Based on a True Story” have often prefixed movies to great effect. In many ways, the awareness of historical counterparts encourages directors and viewers alike to consider not only what happened but to interrogate the how and why behind the narrative, introducing a level of social psychology which made movies like Zodiac, Snowtown and The Imposter so genuinely unsettling. Unfortunately, as in the case of the The Quiet Ones, it seems that the ‘this actually happened’ marketing strategy is increasingly being used to justify lazy film-making.
The movie follows a physics professor Joseph Coupland (Jarred Harris) in 1974 who assembles a team of three students to channel the energy of a poltergeist which seems to be possessing a young girl. The film’s opening sequences at Oxford University are relatively intriguing, with Coupland espousing his theories to sceptical students in lectures before his funds are cut off entirely by the university administration. Harris’ performance begins to touch on a kind of scholarly neurosis and academic hysteria which would make for an interesting playing-field in this genre but, alas, the production company evidently ran out of money to film in Oxford and so our intrepid foursome relocate their supernatural experiments to – that’ right – an abandoned house in the country.
1974 is the same year The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released. The characters clearly didn’t make an effort to see it, otherwise they’d have thought twice about making camp in an old homestead.
And thus we have the set-up: a creepy child, playing with a creepy doll, in a creepy building – all being caught on camera by main character Brian (Sam Claflin) much of which is relayed to the audience as grainy, hand-held 8mm footage. The extent to which these same plots are recycled nowadays is infuriating, and it comes as a relief for movie-goers when surprisingly original horror movies like last year’s In Fear (A home invasion film but in a car and in real time) grace our screens.
Admittedly however, there is a voracious appetite for these films which shouldn’t necessarily be scorned. The issue with The Quiet Ones, then, doesn’t lie with unoriginality per se but with the general mind-numbing awfulness of its execution. Films like Insidious, The Woman in Black and The Conjuring were very predictable, exploiting obvious horror movie tropes at every possible turn, yet the scripts were fleshed out to be ultimately quite engaging stories. Here, the dialogue is purely expository, and the lacklustre visuals fail to be disguised under the façade of ‘found footage’.
Claflin is a one-note charisma vacuum, Kristina (Erin Richards) is the token beautiful blonde given nothing to say but placed centre stage for pubescent 15 year olds to gawp at, and even Harris (a reliably brilliant actor) struggles to make anything substantial out of his pantomime ‘mad scientist’ role. The only actor I found in any way engaging was Rory Fleck-Byrne, in that he was head-thumpingly annoying. Personally speaking, I couldn’t wait for him to be killed off by a demonic poltergeist.
The audience I was with seemed collectively irritated. People were checking their phones and, at other moments, there were inappropriate howls of laughter, as when Kristina reaches the end of her tether with the supernatural occurrences and vows to return to Oxford, exclaiming (with no hint of irony) “We’ve already missed loads of lectures!” Every jump could be anticipated by the routine sound design (Quiet -> Silence -> 1, 2, 3 -> BANG), and the repetitive tense/reliefs induced for the viewer felt less like scares and more like an abdominal workout.
As the screening ended, chatter resumed, and the person sat behind me asked her partner about their evening’s dining options. Indeed, not one person seemed to be talking about the movie – as if The Quiet Ones had rudely interrupted their previous conversation. The film made me long for a viewing experience like last year’s Stoker – a head-scratching horror film made chilling not through artificial loud bangs but through aesthetically arresting cinematography and tantalising lead performances.
It continues to baffle me how commercially successful films like The Quiet Ones are. I suppose it’s largely due to how cheaply they can be made. But considering the inflated price of cinema tickets, I’d recommend going to see a movie where the film-maker has put in slightly more effort, and not explained away a poorly conceived narrative by ostentatiously publicising the fact it is “a true story.”
Which it’s not. Obviously.