Brought to you in part by the updated version of the venerable British chill-factory Hammer Studios, "The Quiet Ones" is an old-fashioned tale of terror that won't disappoint modern horror audiences. Set in 1974, it's the kind of story where a tweed-clad Oxford professor whose tones are as mild as his manner thinks he can prove that what we call "possession" is just negative psychic resonances that can be scientifically removed, "... like a tumor ... we can harvest that energy."
That kind of hubris will, of course, have consequences — which is good, considering that's what we're watching for. Oxford Professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris of "Mad Men") heads up a small group of challengers of the unknown, with grad students Krissi (Erin Richards) and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne) as his assistants. Film buff and outsider Brian (Sam Claflin) joins the group near the beginning, documenting the attempts to help unwell ex-foster child Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) release the 'psychic energy' that's driving her mad.
Directed by John Pogue ("Quarantine 2"), "The Quiet Ones" has a superbly-tuned sense of scares; much of the film is seen through the lens of Brian's camera, but much of it is not. The film's far more interested in things that go bump in the night than it is in things that pop out in front of our face, and the sound design and editing — laden with spooky quiet creaks and jarring, bass-heavy thumping — is all top-notch. The cinematography is also excellent, as provided by Mátyás Erdély, who also shot the under-seen long-take masterpiece "Miss Bala"; the editing nicely incorporates both the movie Brian's filming and the movie that we're watching, thanks to Glenn Garland ("Halloween," "The Devil's Rejects"). Paul Royce, who created the hair, make-up and prosthetics special effects, crafts several spooky moments with devious trickery.
There are even a few performance highlights: Harris is pitch-perfect as a scientist who insists on rational explanations for inexplicable events; and Claflin is good as the reluctant conscience of the group, caught between the pursuit of the truth and his concern for Jane. As Jane, Olivia Cooke is the secret heart of the film, combining naturalistic concern and confusion with the splendor and terror of being a conduit for some mysterious force. Everyone wants to save Jane, though their motivations and ultimate methods are not quite so clear. All of this is done in the name of science, but science requires independent objective observers, and as events in the abandoned home the five-some have set up for their research become more and more strange, everyone involved becomes less and less independent and objective.
While there's some blood and gore in "The Quiet Ones," it's really the kind of film that wants to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, not raise your lunch from your stomach; it's spooky and classy at the same time, full of strange events but more than willing to let them happen just a little tiny bit offscreen, where you can imagine the full awfulness of happenings and sights we aren't shown. "The Quiet Ones" is rated PG-13, but it's actually far scarier than plenty of the tedious R-rated gorefests we've had as of late, like "Proxy," "Nurse 3D," and "American Mary." Anyone can create disgust; creating slowly-building disquiet through character and screenwriting is entirely another, far trickier, proposition, and Pogue and his screenwriters do exactly that.
There are, to be sure, a few problems in "The Quiet Ones," mostly a side-effect of having a platoon of writers. The script is credited to Pogue, Craig Rosenberg and Oren Moverman — with an additional credit that it was 'based on' Tom de Ville's original screenplay — and the net result is a film that feels both punched-up and watered-down. The phrase that gives the film its title is used once in an unexplained throwaway line, and the ultimate revelations about the crooked road that brought Jane to Dr. Coupland's care in the first place come a little too late as well; they're more startling than suspenseful, explained as opposed to demonstrated.
Still, with its combination of retro feel and modern moviemaking, a cleverly-created '70s setting and a few superb performances, "The Quiet Ones" is worth making a little noise about if you're a horror fan.
SCORE: 6.7 / 10