The title of “The Quiet Ones,” the latest horror movie about supernatural doings set in the 1970s, is explained fairly late. By then its director, John Pogue, has made a modest racket with the usual bumps in the night, some cackling and screaming, a bit of door slamming and table knocking. A fair amount of this noise seems to emanate from Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), a hollow-eyed young patient of Professor Coupland (Jared Harris). An Oxford University lecturer, Coupland believes that the supernatural occurrences in Jane’s bleak, lonely life have been created by her mind and is using every bad idea he has – including curing her through sleep deprivation – to prove it.
Coupland may believe that Jane is psychologically damaged and that her mind is creating the spooky stuff that has haunted her throughout life, but it’s quickly clear that he’s one of the genre’s foolish and flawed men of science. (The always watchable Harris, who excels at men in the shadows, delivers the only performance of merit.) As in other horror tales with doctors and scientists, the darkness in “The Quiet Ones” emerges during the struggle between an ostensibly rational mind and the creatures that are manifestations of irrationality and, by their very existence, emblems of religious faith. Demons and God tend to go together, which may be one reason both the supernatural and Christianity are enjoying a big-screen moment, sometimes in the same movie.
Pogue doesn’t push the God angle hard, even if he does hang a cross around the neck of the credulous lug, Brian (Sam Claflin), whom Coupland hires to film his work with Jane. After objections to Coupland’s methods lead to his experiment’s being shut down, he moves her and a team, including Brian and two students, Krissi (Erin Richards) and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne), off campus and into a dilapidated, isolated house with poor lighting and creaky floorboards. There, Coupland pushes Jane to reach deeper into her tortured mind, while Pogue – working from a script credited to him, Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman and Tom de Ville – deploys the typical shock cuts and loud, abrupt noises that produce small jolts (“Boo!” moments) that dissipate as swiftly as popped soap bubbles.
There are nice touches, like the short scene at Oxford in which an angry Coupland, striding across a green lawn with his black gown flapping, evokes a malevolent raven. Yet many of the movie’s more nominally horrific elements are too familiar, including the spooky boy with the dead eyes who appears in the digitally produced black-and-white 8-millimeter film that – like Brian’s similarly faked 16-millimeter footage – is woven into the main narrative. Pogue switches between these counterfeited formats well enough, if mechanically, and they add little to the story’s meaning or the movie’s visual texture. Mostly, they suggest that film stock itself, which has been almost entirely displaced by digital, has already become a ghost haunting the cinema. The horror, the horror.
The vogue for both remaking films from the 1970s and ‘80s and imitating them, at times down to the last polyester thread (as in “The Conjuring”), may be an expression of nostalgia, especially for directors born in those decades, or just another example of market-driven copies. At its most persuasive, these period imitations feel of a piece with the fetishization of ‘70s cinema that has informed Quentin Tarantino’s work, most explicitly in “Grindhouse,” his and Robert Rodriguez’s double-feature pastiche of old exploitation cinema. French critic Emmanuel Burdeau wrote that the car race at the center of Tarantino’s contribution was metaphorically “that of film stock”: it’s film that makes the movie. In “The Quiet Ones,” the film stocks are just vapors of a race that’s almost over.