True-story gimmick superficially elevates the stakes in 'The Quiet Ones'
The Quiet Ones Lionsgate
Director: John Pogue
Screenplay: Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman and John Pogue, based on the screenplay by Tom de Ville
Starring: Jared Harris, Olivia Cooke, Sam Claflin, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne and Laurie Calvert
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 38 minutes
April 25, 2014
(out of four)
One of my favorite movie jokes is the opening title card in Fargo - since appropriated by the new FX series of the same name - insisting that the film is based on a true story. And as if that lie weren't hilariously blatant enough already, the Coen Brothers double down, stating that everything in the film is presented exactly as it occurred.
It's nearly two decades later, and the absurdity of that joke still has not quite sunk in. "Based on a true story" remains one of the most persistent selling points in cinema - and, as the Coens made perfectly clear, one of the most meaningless. Regardless of any movie's origins, the "true story" label is just a desperate plea to be taken seriously, and a built-in deflection against criticism. "Oh, you didn't think it was believable? Well did you know it was based on actual events?!"
True story: I once had a (cordial) argument with a couple of co-workers, in which I railed against the idiocy and irrationality of certain sequences and subplots in a then-recent movie. (Fine, if you must know, the movie was The Blind Side.) Their collective response? "But it was based on a true story!" That was it. That was their argument.
I bring this up now because John Pogue's The Quiet Ones banks on this very reaction, periodically reminding us that this "really happened," a fact that presumably gives what we're watching added weight. And I even found myself briefly under that spell, watching things unfold while pondering the possibilities and explanations of the real-life event upon which it was based. Then I snapped out of it, remembered that the "true" aspects were little more than a selling point, and realized that it was (deliberately) distracting from the fact that this particular possession/telekinesis story didn't have anything much to add to the genre, all things considered. You see the "true story" label applied across various genres, but none more frequently than horror. It's an easy way to make the unexplained seem even scarier. No, no, this REALLY happened - honest! What if it happened to YOU?
The latest from the revived Hammer Horror label, The Quiet Ones has an odd success rate. On one hand, its story offers virtually nothing that hasn't been covered ad nauseam in similar films for decades. And for another, despite being set in 1974 and going for an old-fashioned style of atmosphere, it still relies too often on the modern jump-scare technique, with intermittent success. But there's something that remains intriguing about Pogue's approach. Aside from the standard structure of the screenplay (co-written with Craig Rosenberg and Oren Moverman), the film doesn't follow the typical rhythms of its predecessors, or horror in general.
In fact, it's distinct in its lack of much rhythm at all. I actually mean this as a compliment. The scenes are put together in an almost episodic way, which gives the action an uneasy, start-and-stop tempo. The film is fully linear, but key moments don't flow smoothly into one another - rather, they're cut short almost too soon, easing us into a mindset in which we know we're not seeing all there is to see. It's a strangely effective technique by Rogue and editor Glenn Garland, as they give us just enough to know very bad things are afoot, but refuse to dwell on them for too long. The lack of reliance on music helps, too - while we do get the obligatory clanging music whenever something unexpected or scary happens, for the most part the film does without, reveling in the ambience of the creaky house itself, the hum of the (fake) 16mm film, and the cracking and popping on the soundtrack.
I was also impressed that, despite a very defensible opportunity to do so, Rogue does not rely exclusively on the "found footage," despite the constant presence of a cameraman who's documenting the experiment at the heart of the story. Instead, we cut back and forth between traditional camerawork and the footage shot for the experiment itself. Pogue is keenly aware of when to use each style, and why.
The cameraman, a curious twentysomething named Brian (Sam Claflin), has just joined a group at the University of Oxford running an ongoing experiment with a mentally disturbed young woman named Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke, in a strong performance), who believes she is possessed by a spirit named Evie.
Running the experiment is Professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris), who is convinced that "supernatural" events - especially those that manifest themselves as mental illness - are the product of subconscious transmitting of negative energy. He believes that he can, in effect, capture and harness that energy and rid the world of both mental illness and "supernatural" occurrences altogether.
Alongside him are Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne) - whose job is to raise objections whenever the plot needs someone to raise objections - and Krissi (Erin Richards), whose dual roles include serving as the voice of reason, and showing off all the sexiest fashions of 1974. (Terrific work on the thigh-high stockings, costume designer Camille Benda!)
The film's strangest decision is the amount of time it spends on the sexual dynamics within the group, which is conducting its research at an abandoned country home that has no television or phone service. What we get is an ongoing love pentagon of sorts. Krissi and Harry are sleeping together, but Krissi is also having an affair with Joseph. Meanwhile, it seems Joseph may have feelings for Jane (albeit in a creepy, paternalistic way), which is a problem for Brian, who really seems to be into Jane, a sentiment she very actively reciprocates when she's not trying to terrorize people with her mind. I kept waiting for Brian and Harry to make eyes at each other, but alas, it wasn't meant to be.
The Quiet Ones has more going for it than I initially thought, even taking into account the cheap "true story" angle. For the most part it doesn't play like most current horror movies, and Pogue shows a nice sense of patience with how and when he reveals information. He derails things a bit with a terribly directed and edited climactic scene, and for the most part I don't know where the film thought it was going with the various interpersonal relationships. But in the midst of all the things that don't work is a crucial and deliberate sense of mood that effectively sets us, and the characters, on edge, true story or not.