Monday, April 28, 2014

The Quiet Ones

I'm growing to hate my powers of observation.  I was looking forward to seeing "The Quiet Ones", the newest film from legendary British horror studio, Hammer Film Productions.  And I managed to stay positive about the movie for exactly thirty seconds until I spied with my little eye something distressing.  I saw that the screenwriter credit for Tom de Ville, said "Based on the Screenplay by".  Meaning the studio paid this man for his screenplay, and then ditched it somewhere during production.  This was followed by three more screenwriter credits for Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, and John Pogue, who was also the director.  That means "The Quiet Ones" has gone through at least four revisions somewhere between its conception and release, which is always a bad sign.  Movies and screenwriters are like food and a chef.  It is great to eat a stew prepared by one chef, it is not so great to eat a stew prepared by four, each of whom are trying to complete their own artistic vision as to what the food is going to look like.  Just leave your check on the table and go eat at Burger King instead, you'll do your stomach a great service.

What we have here is yet another mediocre horror film.  It is not very good, and it is not very bad, but perhaps worst of all, it's not bad in any kind of interesting way.  You've seen "The Quiet Ones" before:  this story has been done and done better hundreds of times.  Though the concept might be unoriginal, there are a few scares to be found here and there.  However it is executed so sloppily.  This is the kind of movie that moves with terrible slowness because it seems to get impatient with itself.  As soon as it looks like "The Quiet Ones" is going to give us some stronger characterization or a firmer sense of mood, it ditches the structure-building for another predictable scare.  This isn't a movie that builds its terror continuously, it just throws out a regulation number of scary scenes, until it reaches a regulation running time, and then just ends lazily ends with a hilariously-bad ending.

More unfortunately, "The Quiet Ones" is completely unable to play to its own strengths.  For such a corny horror movie, it actually managed to amass a solid entirely-English cast with an effective visual style.  Last year's "The Conjuring" showed the world that the 1970s was the creepiest decade in history, making plaid clothing, wood paneling, and old rock music the perfect backdrop for a ghost story.  Unfortunately the plotline is a confused mess.  1970s scientists attempt to study a troubled young girl with psychic powers, apparently trying to conjure her poltergeist powers and - somehow - cure her mental illness.  Thus most of the film is sitting around a dusty old house while various kinds of quackery and bad science are performed, without much context as to how this is going to work, or what we're trying to achieve.  Worse, the characters themselves are underwritten and bland, so there is no real arc to be found.  There's no claustrophobia, no sense of an evolving story.  I don't know what was wrong with Tom de Ville's original draft, but was this final version really an improvement?

Let's start positively with the cast:  We have Jared Harris playing Professor Coupland, a middle-aged lusty scientist who insists his grad student assistants call him "Joseph" while he examines the supernatural with a cigarette perpetually held between two fingers.  Jared Harris does his best with the role, managing to create an air of arrogant intellectualism about him, but it isn't enough to save the movie.  The lead, Brian, is played by Sam Claflin, who you probably know as the handsome blond guy who fought with a trident in "The Hunger Games 2".  Brian sadly is the living form of most of the movie's problems.  For the experiment he's brought in as the camera man, so he's the audience surrogate and the justification for the found footage sequence.  The guy is here to have the technobabble explained to him and to be the one person who will speak out when Joseph goes too far.  Unfortunately, though Sam Claflin is able to bring some level of innocent charisma to the role (he is legitimately a good actor), the script never once bothered to give Brian a personality.  In his first scene he admits to having no particular beliefs of any kind, and never gets more interesting.  Joseph's two grad students are a Slut and Nerd, that's about all you can say about those two.  Then there's the subject of the experiment herself, Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke).  You can tell Cooke is a better actress than this, and she's trying her hardest, but the role calls only for her to look scared, act creepy, and stay remote and frightening.  She wants to bring more humanity to this character but the film won't let her, she has to stay an object, not a person.

Olivia Cooke plays Christina Ricci playing Jane Harper.
If the Jane character had been just a dark-haired creepy girl it would have been fine.  Creepy girls with dark hair were all the rage a decade ago during the Japanese Horror Invasion**, and it more or less worked then.  But the story calls for Jane and Brian to fall in love.  So what we have is the romantic chemistry between an insane girl possessed by Beelzebub and a boy who left his personality in his other pants.  Olivia Cooke and Sam Claflin probably would have great chemistry if they were allowed to be themselves, but they aren't.  But even then a romance between an introverted boy and a troubled girl could have been fantastic.  A movie with an interest in its own characters, and one with the maturity to take its time developing this relationship could have made this work.  In fact, it could have made "The Quiet Ones" all the more frightening, as you learn to be sympathetic to Jane even while the demons inside of her make her all the more dangerous.  But that wasn't what Hammer was going for.

Half of "The Quiet Ones" is filmed in found footage, but luckily avoids the worst trends of that genre.  This is because while Brian films many of the scares, he also puts the camera down at logical times.  At that point we switch back to traditional filming, and the movie continues as normal.  One of the main problems with a found footage movies is the silliness involved in the heroes continuing to carry their camera around, even after they're running from zombies or ghosts.  Yet still Brian will carry the camera up into the creepy attic for some claustrophobic and legitimately frightening scenes.  Hammer learned from "Paranormal Activity 2" that a POV scene against a crazy person in an extremely dark room is terrifying, and it is used for a good effect here.

Really all Jane needs is a comb, I think.
But again, the problems all go back to Joseph's quack science.  Most of the conflict between the characters is an argument over whether Jane is possessed by her own psychic powers or if she's harboring a demonic entity.  "The Quiet Ones"' idea of a shocking twist is the revelation that is indeed a demon, not a poltergeist, as if one was necessarily so much more shocking than the other.  Joseph arrogantly dismisses claims of possession as mindless superstition, then goes back to his ridiculous experiments with a rotating kaleidoscope.  They blare the same rock song over and over again at Jane for no explained reason.  She's locked away in a room all alone to keep her from hurting herself, but they picked a room painted with a grotesque mural of two little girls hanging small animals.  For what?  Inspiration?  His grad student assistants gleefully throw around phrases like "negative energy", nervously hoping the audience is lazy enough to not question the technobabble.  I still don't really know what these characters were trying to accomplish, or why Joseph was so stuck on the notion that that the paranormal came from human psychology, not evil spirits.  Basically it comes down to a cast of characters willing to believe something completely impossible, but unwilling to believe something equally impossible.  It's like if a man who hunts vampires laughs away the prospect of werewolves.  "Yes, I believe in the undead feasting upon the living, but a man turning into a wolf?  That is absurd!"

"The Quiet Ones" is furthermore ruined by sloppy development.  I expressed worry about the writing earlier, but as it turns out, it didn't really matter what the state of the screenplay was, because "The Quiet Ones" was completely butchered in editing.  This feels exactly like a movie that has had a half hour of content carelessly sliced out.  The movie opens after what feels like ten minutes of screentime has been lost, meaning you do not really understand what Joseph is even trying to do for about an hour deep.  Many other details are rushed over, like the aforementioned rock music torture, or the movie's title.  Much much later in the movie Brian meets with another student who accuses Joseph and his team of being a cult called 'the Quiet Ones' who are trying to murder women to summon a ghost.  Where in the nine circles of Hell did that come from?  You never get a sense of how much time is passing, weeks or months pass with the heroes easily able to leave the house and the crazy girl with powers, so there's no sense of being trapped.  Only the sense of a movie stuck in the mud, trying its best to get moving, and constantly sliding backgrounds without gaining any ground.  Then after nothing really has happened, the climax lurches outward suddenly and the movie ends with a jump scare and a STUPID ending***.

The scariest part of this movie might be that rug.
Really, there isn't much to say about "The Quiet Ones".  It is simply a slow horror movie that has its moments here and there, but never really comes together.  It's mediocre, it's not very clever, and the characters never add up.  Perhaps somewhere in the various drafts of the script and the missing pieces of the editing there was a properly scary movie that could make the most out of its cast and its 70s esthetic, but that was not the movie that was on screen.  Hammer once was a great horror company, they once made famous people like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, but they are not going to return to their former glory with half-baked forgettable films like "The Quiet Ones".

* That I published.  You don't want to know about the things that didn't make it.

** I am happy to say, the J-Horror era seems to have ended.  Thank goodness for that.  

*** SPOILERS:  Everybody dies except for Brian.  The demons kill everybody except for the main couple, and Jane decides to set herself on fire to kill the beast.  Then the demon jumps to Brian.  After a cut, we see Brian being interrogated by new researchers, seemingly repeating Joseph's wonky experiment on Brian.  This kind of role-reversal twist might have worked if..... you know what?  Screw it.  I'm not even going to try, the filmmakers didn't.  The ending is just stupid.

1 comment:

  1. J-horror era have not ended, it's style is more than a girl with black long hair, and you know it. Without j-horror movies this kind of movies couldn't exists, there is a legacy of j-horror movies in all american movies, at least in the "good" american horror movies.