by Steve Habrat
Over the past four years, the once-glorious production company Hammer Films has been slowly trying re-establish itself in the horror genre. From the 1950s through the early-1970s, Hammer enjoyed financial and critical success with gothic horror films such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and many more terrifying classics that have amassed legions of devoted fans over the years. By the late-1970s, Hammer’s popularity had started to diminish, and the company slowly faded from the public’s eye. After many years of silence, Hammer Films returned in 2010 with Let Me In, a spooky remake of the celebrated 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In. Between 2010 and 2012, Hammer released two smaller films before returning to the mainstream with The Woman in Black, another eerie release that suggested that the company still had a few terrifying ghouls kicking around in their cobwebbed crypts. After another two-year wait, Hammer continues its comeback campaign with The Quiet Ones, a stale haunted house thriller that clumsily attempts to run with the countless other “found-footage” horror movies that have been quickly churned out. Though The Quiet Ones may not be as scary as recent supernatural offerings like Insidious, The Innkeepers, The Conjuring, or Oculus, the film is executed with plenty of chiaroscuro elegance, and it reveals that star Jared Harris was born to be a member of the Hammer family—one that consisted of gentlemanly greats like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Oliver Reed.
The Quiet Ones picks up in Oxford, 1974, with Professor Joseph Coupland (played by Jared Harris) enlisting the help of a student cameraman by the name of Brian McNeil (played by Sam Claflin) to help with an unorthodox experiment being conducting on campus. The experiment involves a young girl named Jane Harper (played by Olivia Cooke), who believes that a nasty spirit by the name of Evey has possessed her. It turns out that Coupland rejects theories about the supernatural, and that he is convinced that he can cure Jane through advanced scientific methods. After the university unexpectedly cuts funding for the experiment, Brian, Coupland, and his two student assistants, Krissi (played by Erin Richards) and Harry (played by Rory Fleck-Byrne), travel to a secluded country mansion where the group can work without disruption. Things get off to a relatively uneventful start, but soon, Jane’s condition worsens as Coupland draws out the sinister forces within her. As the spirit of Evey grows more and more dangerous, Brian discovers a horrific secret about Jane’s past that will change the course of the experiment and threaten the lives of everyone involved.
With The Quiet Ones, Hammer reveals that they are well aware of the gimmicks that have been dominating the horror market for the past several years. Scattered about the film is Hammer’s trademark gothic set design and gloomy atmosphere weighing heavily on the action. Frankly, the film gets far flashing Hammer’s calling card, and you get the impression that if director John Pogue had solely committed to the gothic blueprint, The Quiet Ones would have been an old-fashioned success. After all, Hammer found an audience with a taste for undead ghouls, Frankenstein monsters, and gentlemanly vampires in the ‘50s, a time when atomic monsters, extraterrestrials, and giant bugs were the hot ticket at local movie palaces and drive-ins. What would prevent it from working in the smartphone age? Sadly, where The Quiet Ones drops the ball is with the application of the “found footage” approach that has been sweeping through American horror movies. While it is exciting to think that Hammer is attempting to modernize itself a bit, it quickly becomes obvious that it’s here simply to allow Hammer to run with the current big boys of horror. What is even more frustrating is the fact that the filmmakers are clearly experimenting with this technique and had absolutely no idea how to apply it properly. It’s painfully clumsy and only twice does the film milk any suspense from this approach. However, the impact of both sequences is softened by cheap jump scares that just come off as lazy and pathetic. You mean to tell us that Hammer—a company that made some seriously silly, low-budget junk work splendidly in their heyday—couldn’t devise any new or creative ways to make the audience tremble with fear?!
While the throwaway “found footage” gimmick and the jump scares keep The Quiet Ones from standing out in the crowd, the film does reveal that Jared Harris could very well be Hammer’s new Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. He is charismatic and gentlemanly, yet he is capable of awakening an inner slumbering madman when poked hard enough. Late in the film there are hints of Cushing’s unhinged Dr. Frankenstein, as he resorts to extreme measures to carry out his sinister work. Harris really charges up the film even in its slower moments, and he is able to largely cover for the more amateurish performances from the rest of the fresh-faced cast. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s Sam Claflin is probably the best of the young talent as Brian, the group’s skeptical cameraman who slowly develops feelings for the tortured Jane Harper. He’s a vanilla hero—that no one can deny—but he succeeds in remaining watchable for the duration of the film. And then we have Olivia Cooke, who physically channels Christina Ricci’s Wednesday from The Addam’s Family. Her performance is a glob of clichés as she hovers over a creepy doll and plucks its hair out, or stares blankly through sleepy eyes and rambles on about Evey, the spirit who has called her body home. The weakest links are undoubtedly Erin Richards, who stumbles her way around the feisty hippie Krissi, and Rory Fleck-Byrne, who’s Harry is present only to add slight bits of exposition for the cutting-edge methods the group is experimenting with.
While Harris puts forth considerable effort to salvage The Quiet Ones, more damage is done through the film’s lackluster finale, which crashes and then literally burns right in front of our eyes. The script finds the team of screenwriters—which includes Pogue, Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, and Tom de Ville—looking back and paying tribute to Hammer’s satanic/occult offerings from the mid-1970s. The ghosts of films such as The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter clank and bang around in the darkness, but the climax can’t match the sleazier thrills of those memorable releases. One the positive side, the film’s cinematography looks fantastic, and the chiaroscuro wash keeps you from drifting off into the abyss of boredom. In true Hammer fashion, The Quiet Ones is also extremely tight and low budget, which allows the film to remain in the tradition of their early horror work. Overall, it’s a thrill to see Hammer’s name back on the big screen, but The Quiet Ones ends up being a step backwards for a company that had made considerable strides in re-establishing themselves. You can’t fault them for attempting to appeal to the new generation of horror fans, but they should be embarrassed that they didn’t attempt to bring anything new to this supernatural séance.
by Steve Habrat
Did you ever think you would see a gritty interpretation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White? Well now you can in all its mediocre glory! Snow White and the Huntsman sheds any whimsicality that is associated this legendary tale and offers audiences a bone snapping, grime-under-the-fingernails medieval vision that hopes to lure a male crowd as well as the shrieking Twilight fans who will see anything that Kristen Stewart even thinks about starring in. Director Rupert Sanders has plenty of talent at his disposal but he is cursed with an uneven script and is forced to cover up the rougher moments with dazzling images to distract us from the dips in the story. If Snow White and the Huntsman were converted into a picture book meant for your coffee table, I guarantee it would be a huge hit when you have company over. While the film wins visually (it is stunning in digital projection), there are moments here when the film comes to a screeching halt, pondering what it will do with itself next. Good thing that Thor’s Chris Hemsworth and the seven dwarfs show up to aid you in your battle to keep your eyelids open because I’m sure Snow White and the Huntsman is the cure for insomnia.
Snow White and the Huntsmanbegins with a superbly filmed flashback that shows us Snow White’s royal upbringing. After her mother, Queen Eleanor (Played by Liberty Ross) passes away, her father, King Magnus (Played by Noah Huntley), finds himself in love with the mysterious Ravenna (Played by Charlize Theron), who is supposedly being held captive by the equally mysterious Dark Army. King Magnus marries Ravenna but on their wedding night, Ravenna brutally murders Magnus and then proceeds to overthrow his kingdom with her homely brother, Finn (Played by Sam Spruell) and the Dark Army, who is under her command. Snow White and her buddy William attempt to flee the castle but Snow White is captured by Finn and locked away in one of the castle towers. Fifteen years pass and Snow White (Played by Kristen Stewart) is still locked up in that tower, battling to stay warm from the frigid weather. Queen Ravenna still rules over the once lush but now barren land, giggling over the poverty and suffering that grips the local townspeople. Soon, Queen Ravenna, who has the power to remain young by draining the youth from young girls that are brought to her, is informed by Mirror that Snow White’s beauty is destined to surpass her own beauty. Enraged, she demands that Snow White be brought to her but Snow White escapes, forcing Queen Ravenna to hire the grieving Hunstman (Played by Chris Hemsworth) to track Snow White down in the Dark Forest and return her before she is consumed by old age. Also searching for Snow White is her old friend William (Played by Sam Claflin), who hasn’t forgiven himself for loosing Snow White to Ravenna.
Snow White and the Huntsman is eager to explain away some of the supernatural elements of its story. A scene in which Queen Ravenna speaks with her Mirror while Finn spies on her reveals that the talking Mirror may all just be in her head and not really there at all. Scenes in the Dark Forest, where Snow White begins seeing strange creatures darting around the twisted and charred trees is actually the result of her inhaling a defensive gas emitted from black pods that dot the ground. While it is obviously doing this to lure in a male audience, Snow White and the Huntsman does keep a few fantasy elements in place. We see trolls, fairies that look like rejects from Pan’s Labyrinth, animals that have become one with their settings, soldiers that shatter into black glass, and more. Yet all of these creatures are believable because they look like they have evolved from trees, grass, rocks, and everything else you can find in the woods. Seeing these wondrous critters was one of the most entertaining parts of Snow White and the Huntsman, giving the film a bit of personality, something it is in dire need of.
We should also be thankful for the presence of Chris Hemsworth, who does most of the heavy lifting in Snow White and the Huntsman, making the film bearable for its two-hour runtime. I truly think that Hemsworth is a talented guy and I give him credit for refusing to allow his baritone hero be a tough guy cliché with no depth. He gives this film a wounded soul and you will feel for his character when his eyes well up. The film really picks up when he makes his entrance and every time he steps away, things start to fall apart. Luckily, he has a bit of back up with a group of scene stealing dwarfs that are appropriately grotesque and a whole lot of awesome. Did you ever think you’d see the seven dwarfs kicking ass and killing people? I sure as hell didn’t and was pleasantly surprised when they did. The dwarfs, Beith (Played by Ian McShane), Muir (Played by Bob Hoskins), Gort (Played by Ray Winstone), Nion (Played by Nick Frost), Duir (Played by Eddie Marsan), Coll (Played by Toby Jones), Quert (Played by Johnny Harris), and Gus (Played by Brian Gleeson), could have been an excuse for a couple of laughs to keep the kids busy but miraculously, the film never has them parading around like pint size jesters. Along with Hemsworth’s Hunstman, they make up the emotional core that keeps things sizzling.
The biggest problem outside the stop-go plotline is Theron’s Queen Ravenna and Stewart’s Snow White. Stewart is a one-note actress who is incapable of holding the screen and injecting any presence into her scenes. Her character wanders around the entire time looking for purpose that she barely finds. She may have the looks but I truly think that they could have found someone who didn’t wander around with a dumbfounded look on her face. I was never rooting for her and wasn’t moved an inch when she gives her big rallying speech at the end. Hemsworth is the one who keeps her character from crashing and burning from lack of emotion. When Stewart isn’t busy ruining the movie, Theron is busy overacting her brains out. She is so evil, it becomes overkill and just downright ludicrous. I was pulling for her to be another bright spot in this mostly drab tale but she launches into her role at two hundred miles per hour, annoyingly ready to bear her fangs. The best villains are the ones who have some sort of complexity to their actions and an aura of unpredictability but Theron just makes Ravenna evil with a capital “E” for silly reasons. I hated that you could read every face twitch and every tap of her finger.
Snow White and the Huntsman does have a few action sequences that break up the monotony of the script, mostly the tar-caked final battle that features some nasty smack downs that will get the adrenaline pumping pretty good. Sadly, the finale does end up cramming a bunch of unnecessary CGI into it that really serves no point (We have a Dark Shadows problem on our hands!). It also feels like too much too late in the game. Every once and a while, we do catch a glimpse of what Snow White and the Huntsman could have been, but it just opts to be a predictably moody medieval road movie instead of setting itself apart from the pack. The overall slacking from Stewart, who should have won our hearts early on, and the irritatingly evil Theron end up being the poison apple that sends Snow White and the Huntsman into a comatose state it never wakes up from. It’s a shame because in a summer that has so far only seen one truly great blockbuster (The Avengers), this had potential to be one of the fairest blockbusters of the summer.