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Film has the right retro look, but chills are past their prime

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Jared Harris, left, Olivia Cooke and the requisite creepy doll.

EONE FILMS Enlarge Image

Jared Harris, left, Olivia Cooke and the requisite creepy doll.

Paying homage in style and theme to the vintage horror movies of the 1970s, The Quiet Ones is the latest stylish shocker from Hammer, the recently reactivated classic U.K. studio imprint. As an exercise in retro pastiche, it impresses. But as a postmodern genre reinvention, it fails to deliver.

The sophomore feature of screenwriter-turned-director John Pogue, The Quiet Ones draws loosely on the "Philips Experiment" of 1972, in which a group of Toronto academic researchers tried to prove that ghosts and poltergeists are constructs of the human mind. Needless to say, the original trials did not involve satanic cults, paranormal love triangles or high body counts, but reality can be disappointingly mundane like that.

Set in 1974, the film stars Mad Men veteran Jared Harris as Joseph Coupland, an Oxford University psychology professor with highly unorthodox methods. Coupland hires amateur cameraman Brian McNeil (Sam Claflin of Hunger Games) to document his controversial experiments on Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), a mentally unstable young woman who appears to be possessed by a diabolical alter ego named Evey. The professor believes Jane is creating Evey purely through her own telekinetic powers, and thus could hold the key to curing mental illness across the globe. His cutting-edge treatment, bizarrely, involves locking her in a cell-like bedroom and blasting her with loud rock music.

Driven out of Oxford by angry neighbours and nervous university authorities, Coupland and his team relocate to a crumbling country house straight out of the horror-cliché handbook. No other living souls for miles around? Check. Broken phone connection? Check. Spooky attic rooms? You get the picture. As the obligatory sexual tension begins to crackle between Brian and Jane -- or is it Evey? -- shocking revelations come to light and Evey's antics turn more sinister. A bloody battle between scientific reason and supernatural evil follows.

Harris clearly relishes playing Coupland as a louche, chain-smoking, libidinous dandy, just a degree away from hammy mad-scientist caricature. In a vintage Hammer production, Vincent Price or Christopher Lee would have owned this role. The professor may be two-dimensional, but the rest of the cast are limited to one each. Claflin's Brian is a pale cipher of naive goodness, while his fellow researchers, Kristina (Erin Richards) and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne), are thinly written eye-candy roles.

A charitable horror aficionado might interpret all these clumsy touches as self-referential allusions to Hammer's notoriously cheap, semi-exploitation ethos. But they still sit oddly alongside the film's high technical polish.

Visual effects are also impressive, particularly Brian's hand-held footage with its authentically retro lens flare, degraded colours and scratchy frames. The sound design is striking too, often more unsettling than the film's relatively mild visual shocks.

The Quiet Ones is not very original, nor even especially scary. All the same, this genteel shocker earns its place in Hammer's campy canon of superior B-movie schlock. Creaky and predictable, it should serve as comfort food to the huge and undemanding global fan base for old-school horror.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2014 D5

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