The Quiet Ones is a pretty ironic title for a horror film whose primary scare tactic is to periodically crank up the volume, sending the needle to the red with a sudden spike in the decibel levels. Seriously, this is one loud movie: Deafening blares of audio greet each supernatural occurrence, to the point where viewers may find themselves cuffing their ears instead of peaking through their fingers during the “scary” parts. And it’s not just screaming specters blowing out the Dolby speaker system; champagne corks pop like gunshots, a radio crackles like a jet engine, and a clapperboard comes down like a falling tree. Perhaps the filmmakers hoped that these obnoxious blasts of sound would stave off slumber, startling bored audience members back to attention. If so, mission accomplished, though the effect may linger long after the end credits; forget nightmares, it’ll be the tinnitus that keeps you awake.
Set in 1974, and “inspired by actual events”—which might well translate to “one time, some people talked about ghosts”—The Quiet Ones casts Mad Men’s Jared Harris as an Oxford professor convinced that the unusual events often attributed to poltergeists are actually telekinetic manifestations of emotional trauma. (Why this wild theory is considered a rational, more plausible alternative to apparitions is anyone’s guess.) Assisting the prof in his unorthodox research is an easygoing college hunk (Rory Fleck-Byrne), his sexpot girlfriend (Erin Richards, clinging to an old-fashioned cigarette holder like her performance depended on it), and a shy cameraman (Sam Claflin, demonstrating his range after playing the cocksure Finnick in Catching Fire). As for the subject of their experiments, she’s a disturbed, sullen orphan (Olivia Cooke) who carries on conversations with an “imaginary” friend, many of them accompanied by some spontaneous fire, some shaking chandeliers, you know the drill. When the university cuts the project’s funding, the whole gang piles into a van and heads out to a remote country home to continue the study. What could possibly go wrong in the middle of nowhere, provoking spirits and then insisting they don’t exist?
As The Conjuring proved last summer, ghost stories look great in the throwback couture of the 1970s. The Quiet Ones is no exception, but all the retro production design in the world can’t disguise the sheer familiarity of the film’s paranormal parlor tricks. Having Claflin’s character around to shoot everything on grainy, low-grade celluloid is just a blatant excuse to exploit some found-footage conventions; perhaps the rationale was that audiences don’t want horror movies that don’t include at least one shot of some spooky phenomenon happening in the corner of the frame. The most interesting element here is the question of scientific culpability: Harris’ cold, faintly lecherous academic displays an increasing lack of concern for the safety of his human guinea pig—a character who, as played by Christina Ricci-type Cooke, boasts a little more dimension than the average possessed vessel. Mainly, however, that angle just amounts to a lot of shouting matches, characters repetitively debating ethics to fill the space between exceedingly mild (if exceptionally noisy) set pieces. What’s really scary is that this generic bump-in-the-night material comes courtesy of Hammer, the venerated British horror studio. Only the accents betray its origins. Not that you’ll be able to hear them over all the eardrum-puncturing cacophony.