What’s the difference between magic and science? Maybe, sometimes, there isn’t one. If you can measure a magic trick, if you can break it down to its constituent parts and analyse how it works, doesn’t it turn into science? The Quiet Ones’ Professor Coupland thinks so. He’s got a theory about poltergeists that might win him a Nobel prize, if only he can prove it.
So he sets up an experiment. In a crumbling old country house, miles away from anywhere, Coupland plans to teach a disturbed young woman to manifest her mental illness as a paranormal entity. With a hired cameraman ready to capture his work on tape, he thinks he’ll finally get the evidence he needs. But as time and money dribble away, his pseudo-scientific methods soon dissolve into hokey spiritualism, and the experiment turns into something like torture. Through it all, the camera keeps rolling, documenting every step of the increasingly scary process.
The actual scares aren’t particularly innovative, though they’re effective enough in the moment – creaky doors and loud bangs tend to make you jump, even when there’s nothing behind them. What the film lacks in terrifying imagery, it makes up for in atmosphere; it’s eerie, oppressive, seething with grief and sexual jealousy.
The cast work hard to sell both their characters and the situation, and it pays off: Sam Claflin is charmingly naïve and Olivia Cooke believably haunted, though it’s Jared Harris who steals the show. As the unconventional professor, he exudes a sleazy charisma that lets him make even the most bizarre argument seem perfectly reasonable.
There are some definite missteps along the way – the ‘teleplasm’ scene is less convincing than even the dodgiest Victorian spirit photograph, and there are a few stray lines of dialogue that betray the fact that many, many writers had a hand in this script. But it’s easy to forgive those flaws. Filmmaking itself is a kind of magic trick, as The Quiet Ones’ clever mix of traditional and documentary style footage acknowledges. No matter how many cameras you point at something, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever really understand how it works. Here, Hammer has taken a handful of stock elements – a haunted house, a creepy doll, and a troubled teenage girl – and turned them into something truly haunting.