Somebody’s finally figured it out: the first-person camera isn’t a genre; it’s a narrative tool. Ever since The Blair Witch Project (1999), which didn’t come up with the device but certainly popularised it, Hollywood has bombarded us with carbon-copy thrillers wherein sociopathic voyeurs encounter a supernatural force and then proceed to film every detail of their miserable lives so we as an audience can follow the story. I can’t believe it’s taken fifteen years for a movie like The Quiet Ones to ask, “Hey, what if we reverted to standard perspective whenever appropriate so the characters can drop the camcorder once in a while and act like normal people?”
Even then, our hero, Brian (Sam Claflin), wastes an awful lot of film running along corridors with his camera on when he ought to get to destination, find the thing he came to shoot, and then press record. This may not seem necessary today in the digital age, but The Quiet Ones takes place in the early seventies, back when celluloid could cost a small fortune, especially to a group of parapsychologists disowned by their university. Their project: put the allegedly possessed Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) through a series of psychological tests to prove that her supernatural condition stems from mental illness, not demonic activity.
According to the opening credits, The Quiet Ones is based on true events, by which director John Progue means that, once upon a time, a group of scholars somewhere in the world (Toronto, Canada, to be precise) investigated the paranormal. Everything else is made up, including the British setting, the nature of the experiment, the people involved, the gruesome death count, and the cheeky picture of the “real” researchers at the end. By all accounts, I should feel cheated, but the extent of this subterfuge actually comes as a relief, given that Professor Coupland (Jared Harris) and his cohorts make for awful scientists.
Of course, that’s the whole point of The Quiet Ones. More of a cult leader than an educator, Coupland uses his status and charisma to seduce his pet student Krissi (Erin Richards), manipulate her boyfriend Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne), and abuse Jane both mentally and physically, all in the name of his fundamentally unverifiable theories. Even scientists, it turns out, can fall prey to zealotry, as only the group’s chronicler, Brian, speaks out against the esteemed professor, having skipped on the Kool-Aid. Unfortunately, his own feelings of lust have left him compromised.
Jared Harris and Sam Claflin give powerful performances as the mad scientist and reluctant assistant respectively, playing up the story’s cinematic roots. From the sexual undercurrent inherent to its premise to the slow escalation of Jane’s supernatural manifestations, so much of The Quiet Ones speaks to the Gothic tradition. Consider the needlessly spacious mansion where the experiment takes place, the way its dilapidated, over-decorated halls evoke the Hammer films of yore. I find it endearing that the studio is still sticking to its brand nearly half a century past its heyday.
I only wish the filmmakers had stuck to their guns and taken the opportunity to modernise some of the more obscure Gothic tropes instead of grabbing a few broad elements to mix into the “found footage” template. For all of its retro charm, The Quiet Ones still partakes in all the clichés of contemporary horror: the nihilistic outlook, the digital jump scares, the sordid twist in lieu of a plot… Take, for instance, the final shot, which undermines the poetic ambiguity of Jane’s arc in favour of a cheap “gotcha” moment straight out of Paranormal Activity (2007). It’s as if Progue were fighting his own demonic possession, oscillating between the creative Hammer fan and the cynical studio hack.
This, I suppose, leads us back to the dual camera style in The Quiet Ones, which I described at the start of this review as the most obvious solution to the problems permeating the “found footage” genre. It turns out, though, that switching back and forth between standard and first-person perspective makes for a nauseating cinematic experience, as the mind constantly has to readapt to either visual language. It just goes to show, if you’re going to break the mould, you better not do it halfway.