I’m as excited as anyone about the recent revival of Hammer, the iconic British horror brand that specialised in Gothic B-movies. The prolific studio produced nearly 300 films from the mid-30’s until its forced hibernation in the 80’s due to a crippling lack of investment. Although I’ve never seen a retro Hammer film that I would classify as “genius” by any kind of universal standard, the studio has put out an absurdly impressive catalogue of campy late-night fare. There’s nothing quite like spending a cozy evening in with some bizarre fight-scene choreography, gratuitous nudity, and Christopher Lee’s arresting stare. Now, history lives on under new CEO Simon Oakes, who has seen the company produce films like Let Me In (2010), The Woman in Black (2012) and, now, The Quiet Ones (2014).
This is the second feature from director John Pogue, who previously made the surprisingly watchable Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011). The Quiet Ones is set in 1974 and tells the “true” story of an Oxford professor (Jared Harris) and his dedicated students and cameraman (Sam Claflin) who attempt to document a link between mental illness and the supernatural by keeping an unstable young woman (Olivia Cooke) under observation in an extremely unethical study. They keep her locked in a single room of an old house out in the countryside, where they conduct experiments designed to “plunge a patient into mental chaos”, and force her to listen to “Cum on Feel the Noize” on repeat. However, it’s never entirely clear what kind of discovery they are hoping to make, as our lecherous academic fluctuates between the opposite modes of “There are mysteries science can’t explain” and “There must be a rational explanation” when confronted with Cooke’s strange and violent behaviour. Tensions and temperatures rise, the shouting becomes louder and the jump scares more frequent as the film jogs along at a steady pace towards its adrenaline-pumping (you’ll get it once you see the film) conclusion.
I thought this had a lot in common with last year’s The Conjuring. Both films have such bafflingly irrelevant titles that they could only have been drawn from a hat. Both, though set in the 70’s, are thoroughly contemporary horrors with only minor concessions to the period in the form of obvious music and wardrobe and some token zoom shots. The Quiet Ones may have a couple of sexy nods to Hammer’s skin flicks of the 70’s, but in a far tamer and disappointingly hetero way. The plots are similar, too, with their ghost/demon/whatever and the academic characters who attempt to understand and fight it with pseudo-science. However, with the exception of Harris and Cooke, the performances in The Quiet Ones are far more irritating than those in The Conjuring. Both make liberal use of cheap jump scares, but The Quiet Ones doesn’t try to do much else to unsettle its audience other than, again, the effective performances of Harris and Cooke.
Even if I wasn’t impressed by the central mystery in the movie, at least there was a mystery. That’s one good thing I can say about it. If you’re going to make a film about scientists studying unexplained supernatural phenomena, it helps if it’s not just a simple case of A+B+C= vampire/ghost/demon/werewolf. When you watch The Quiet Ones, you don’t actually know what’s going on, which helped keep me interested in Cooke’s strange symptoms, since I couldn’t immediately diagnose them.
On a more personal note, this is the first film set in Oxford that I’ve seen since becoming a student here. Identifying colleges, libraries and landmarks that are now a part of my daily life was a fun distraction that I don’t normally get to enjoy in films (except those explicitly set in Toronto). Although the opening credits flash a bit of paperwork with the letterhead for the fictional “Latimer College, Oxford”, most of the filming locations were around Merton College, and one character is repeatedly seen wearing a Merton crest on his shirt. And, of course, there’s the obligatory shot of the Bridge of Sighs as our cameraman walks towards the Bodleian. It was eerie, then, to walk past that same spot on my way back from the cinema.
This was one reason why I had a bit of an epiphany about Freud’s unheimlich while watching this film. Yes, my mind had time to wander into my limited knowledge of psychoanalysis, which is probably not a good sign. The unheimlich (German for “uncanny”) is, in a tiny nutshell, a way of describing the unsettling feeling of seeing something familiar but… different. This is why it feels strange to see your city on film. This might also be why the children from Cronenburg’s The Brood are so disturbing: they look like they were made by someone who generally knows what children look like, but there’s something not quite right and, therefore, horrifyingly wrong about them. Actually, this is why I think film is a particularly appropriate medium for horror, since it necessarily creates artificial sights and sounds modeled after real life. What I noticed while watching The Quiet Ones is that the recurrence of set pieces, the repetition of a song, and the general insularity of the house all become something hideously transformed once things go pear-shaped. For example, we see that same heavy metal door with its two sliding locks and rectangular opening countless times throughout the film. As we get to the crazy, paranormal finale, the door’s familiarity grounds us in the setting of the story, but also becomes all the more disturbing because we are recognising it in a new context. Now that I type this out, it seems obvious that this is why horror films spend so much time on mundane actions and set pieces. Not only does it create a greater familiarity with the setting, but if done correctly, it allows room for that familiarity to be turned against the audience when things go wrong. But I digress.
All in all, this is a dull but not-bad film with some good performances. I’ve never expected masterpieces from Hammer, but I’m thrilled that they’re back from the dead and doing interesting things. Far from finding a place of cult status like many vintage Hammer films enjoy today, The Quiet Ones feels more like it was made for the general movie public than for real horror buffs, who may catch themselves glancing at their watches. But I suppose we shouldn’t be too selfish.
Until next time,