“The Quiet Ones” is a cut above the average horror film, thanks mainly to its pedigree as a Hammer Films production. The venerable British studio, known for churning out a steady stream of campy-but-fun monster movies in the 1950s and 1960s — and, more recently, the decent “The Woman in Black” and “Let Me In” — imbues this 1970s-set tale of paranormal experimentation with a modicum of class and polish.
Still, there’s so only much that an English accent can do to make the word “teleplasm” not sound silly.
The movie takes place in Oxford, where psychological researcher Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) has set up shop with a single patient (Olivia Cooke of “Bates Motel”). The young woman, an orphan named Jane, appears to be emotionally scarred from years in the foster care system. She’s suicidal, with low self-esteem and given to mutilating herself with bobby pins. Oh, and she has the power of telekinesis, which she attributes to an entity named “Evie.”
Joseph, for his part, is a man of science, albeit of a sort that countenances some questionable methods. In his efforts to cure Jane of what he believes is a purely psychological malady, he keeps her locked in a cell, where he subjects her to Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize,” played at ear-splitting volume. (Given the high overall decibel level of the film, I’m not exactly sure what the title refers to. The phrase is only mentioned once, near the end of the film, and in an ambiguous context.)
Joseph also is not above keeping Jane doped up, blindfolding her and burning her arm with a candle flame, presumably in order to trigger repressed memories of a mysterious fire that she keeps talking about. What’s more, he may have an unhealthy sexual interest in her. Harris brings an intensity — and an ever-present cigarette — to the creepy role, which is both sickening and hard to look away from. The performance by Cooke, who resembles an anorexic, sleep-deprived Christina Ricci, is deeply affecting.
Balancing out Joseph’s perverse idea of therapy are the more tender ministrations of Brian (Sam Claflin), a young cameraman hired by Joseph to document the experimental proceedings, which include seancelike gatherings, Kirlian photography of Jane’s aura and lots of shouting. Brian also grows to like Jane, which in his case means that he wants to get her out there. His concerns are echoed, sort of, by two other assistants of Joseph (Erin Richards and Rory Fleck-Byrne), who start doubting their mission after strange “sigils” start popping up on everyone’s bodies — occult markings associated with demon worship.
You read that right: demon worship.
To its credit, “The Quiet Ones” exercises a fair amount of restraint, considering the territory it’s heading into. Quite frankly, I had no idea what was going on for two thirds of the film, but my curiosity, and a regular diet of scares, kept me going. Unfortunately, the plot gets bogged down in a familiar and formulaic swamp. It’s a shame, because the story (by Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman and director John Pogue) and the strong cast make for an experience that is both relatable and genuinely frightening.
I wouldn’t want to scare any horror fans away from checking out “The Quiet Ones.” Along with cliche, it serves enough fresh dread to keep things both mysterious and lively for a good long time. Sure, that’s a half-hearted endorsement. But in the words of Joseph, who also has to persuade a reluctant Brian to take on a job that offers both risks and rewards: “Aren’t you just a little bit intrigued?”
★ ★ ½
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief obscenity, smoking and violent and scary images. 97 minutes.