Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The Quiet Ones (2014)

In 1972, the Toronto Society for Psychical Research (TSPR), led by paranormal researcher Dr. A. Owen, undertook what is today widely-known as “The Philip Experiment.” 

In short, the scientist and his peers, including his wife and son created a fictional character: a long-dead man named Philip Aylesford. 

And then -- via the combined energy of eight people participating in a séance -- they set out to contact their own creation.

The end game was to prove that ghosts are not independent “beings” existing in some spirit world or after-life, but rather manifestations, often subconscious, of the human psyche.

In other words, the energy of combined human thought would manifest a “ghost” that couldn’t possibly be real, a character named Philip whom they had created from whole cloth, right down to historical facts and inaccuracies.

The idea underlining the Philip Experiment is congruent with paranormal beliefs about poltergeists; that they are outward manifestations of emotional states, not actually “noisy spirits.”

Remarkably, the séances occasionally produced contact with Philip, who answered the group’s questions in rapping noises.  

Many such séances were videotaped in The Philip Experiment, and later, a book, Conjuring up Philip: An Adventure in Psychokinesis (1977) was published, chronicling the whole experience.

The new horror film from Hammer Studios, The Quiet Ones (2014), opens with a title card suggesting that the film is inspired by a true story.  And of course, that’s an old trick in horror movies: connecting a fictionalized story to something “true” from real-life history.

In this case, as is often true, “inspired” is a good choice of words because The Quiet Ones doesn’t adhere very closely to the historical record of The Philip Experiment.

Yet in the end, it probably doesn’t matter.

The film is a solid, non-sensationalistic throwback to ghost stories of yesteryear like The Haunting (1963) and The Legend of Hell House (1974). Like those role models, The Quiet Ones focuses on a small, diverse “team” staying in a lonely house, investigating a haunting. There, the group attempts to determine if there is life after death, or if it is merely encountering the psychic projections of a troubled team-members.
The Quiet Ones is part “found-footage” in format, often adopting the perspective of a camera chronicling the experiment.  But for the majority of its duration it is a more conventional or tradition film, in the spirit of those genre classics I name-dropped above.

What surprised me most, perhaps, about The Quiet Ones is that it is well-written, features well-developed characters, and doesn’t rely, largely on jump scares or special effects. The film’s final scare is a disappointment, and off-key, for certain, but up until that point The Quiet Ones remains a solid, well-crafted work that deserves to be favorably compared with last summer’s The Conjuring (2013) a film also set in the 1970s and also involving ghosts and demons. 

Unlike The Conjuring -- which works just fine as a roller coaster ride but little more, The Quiet Ones is internally-consistent, highly-focused, and thus, a scarier and more lasting experience.  It's just too bad the ending blows up the good-will generated by the body of the film.

“You cure one patient, you cure all of mankind.”

In England in 1974, a professor at Oxford University, Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) undertakes an experiment to prove that a young woman, Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) is not possessed, but rather manifesting her negative energy in reality. 

Coupland once attempted to prove the same thing with another subject, David Q (Max Pirkus), a boy that believed he was being haunted by a spirit called “Mr. Gregor,” but failed, he believes, because he didn’t have more time to work with him. Now he is obsessed with making his case.

When Oxford cancels Coupland’s experiment, he takes Jane, an engineer named Harry (Ror Fleck-Byrne), a nurse, Krissi (Erin Richards) and a sensitive camera-man, Brian (Sam Claflin) out to a dilapidated estate in the middle of nowhere.

There, tests on Jane resume, and Coupland will stop at nothing to make her manifest “Evey,” the spirit she believes possesses her. 

Soon, Brian begins to develop feelings for Jane, and resents Coupland’s bad treatment of the subject. 

And when Jane is marked -- branded -- by a demonic glyph, Brian researches her history and finds a shocking connection to a real life girl named Evey Dwyer.

“Security is a superstition. It doesn’t exist in nature.”

If you were to concoct a story in which The Legend of Hell House’s determined physicist, Lionel Barrett (Clive Revell) undertook an experiment with The Haunting’s Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), you might come close to capturing the aura of The Quiet Ones. 

Even Krissi, the sexually-carnivorous nurse of the 2014 film, fulfills an important role from those older films.  She plays a latter-day Thea, a Loki-type character who demonstrates affection (and lust) for team-members as easily and frequently as the wind blows.

Those older films, much like The Quiet Ones, are as much about interpersonal team dynamics as they are about ghosts or the supernatural.   

All three films suggest the possibility, at least for a while, that simmering, barely-contained human emotions -- including lust, jealousy, envy, obsession, and regret -- are as much responsible for hauntings as are malevolent discarnate spirits.

When we are unsettled, the film implies, some of us can manifest or create Monsters from the Id, or rather from our own subconscious.  If you take this idea at face value, it certainly jibes with parapsychological literature.  So The Quiet Ones may not tell a true story, but it attempts to accurately convey the essence of the “poltergeist” milieu. 

Specifically, Coupland’s desire to succeed with Jane harks back to a secret in past, and one wonders, after viewing the film, how much his own psychic energy has “polluted” the experiment. 

Similarly, every occurrence in the film can be explained in two ways. Either Evey is possessed by the spirit of a demon that a cult once attempted to resurrect, or she has convinced herself that she is, and is manifesting examples of that belief in the flesh.

Attacks -- like a nasty bite Coupland receives (off-camera) while exploring a dark closet -- could similarly be the result not of a demon’s rage, but from him scratching his palm on a nail in the dark.  I appreciate that the film doesn’t, at least until the post-script, go overboard explaining everything.  There may even be a case to be made that some of the characters' sexual desires and impulses are playing in a role in the horrors that occur.

Featuring few characters and settings, The Quiet Ones actually feels very much like a good old fashioned ghost story, and not just the latest attempt to create box office buzz. The narrative is carefully constructed, and the action actually looks like it is happening in the 1970s, and not in some Hollywood-ized variation of the 1970s. 

The performances are all very good too. Claflin’s Brian, in particular, becomes our source of identification.  

Brian begins his journey not certain “what he believes yet,” and then travels between the poles of extreme skepticism and total belief.  But every shift he makes is validated by his experiences, and the film keeps itself open to those multiple possibilities.

The film’s ending is, well, unfortunate. I don’t know if it was added in post-production, after a bad test-screening, perhaps, but it certainly feels as though it has been piped in from another feature, not one so sturdily and meticulously constructed. You could lop off this coda, and the movie would still be effective, and actually work a whole lot better.

Over the end credits, there are photographs that, in the spirit of The Conjuring, ostensibly reveal the real people involved in The Philip Experiment.  

These photographs are fake, however, so don’t be fooled. None of the film’s Evey Dwyer background is true, and for me, this isn’t quite playing fair with the audience.

It is one thing to state that the film is inspired by true life. It’s another to manufacture photos and put them on screen, implying they are true life. Why not just show the video footage from The Philip Experiment over the end credits instead?  

The Quiet Ones is, for much of its duration, actually a quiet film, slowly generating a sense of genuine terror.  This hard-work all goes wrong in the climax, post-script and end credits, and that’s too bad.  For 90 minutes or so, you think you are watching a latter-day Legend of Hell House, only to find out, at long last, you’re actually in The Conjuring 2.

Movie Trailer: The Quiet Ones (2014)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

At Flashbak: The 5 Niftiest Gadgets of 1970s Sci-Fi TV (but not Trek or Who...)

"In the decade after Star Trek left the air, science fiction television programming branched off in new directions, featuring visions of dystopia like The Starlost (1973) and Gerry Anderson’s supreme space odyssey, Space:1999 (1975 – 1977). 

Later in the decade, following the success of George Lucass Star Wars (1977), the genre saw another paradigm shift, and featured stories of swashbuckling fantasy-adventure such as Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981).

In the vast majority of these programs, producers and writers attempted to examine what the future might look like from a technological perspective. The tricorders, communicators and phasers of 1960s Star Trek were left behind for a wave of new high-tech gadgetry.

Below are five of the coolest examples of futuristic tech from 1970s sci-fi TV."

The A-Team: "The Children of Jamestown"

During the original NBC run of The A-Team (1983 - 1986), my father had a word he used to describe the Stephen J. Cannell, Frank Lupo series:


Now, diverting can mean "entertaining" or "amusing," but it can also mean to "turn aside" or "distract from a serious occupation."

In the case of The A-Team, my Dad probably meant all of the above.

The A-Team is a vintage action series of unmatched cartoon violence, colorful but superficial characters, outrageous stunts...and not much narrative or thematic depth. But taken on those very limited terms, The A-Team truly and fully "diverts."

What does this mean, exactly? Well, even today, you can't take your eyes off the bloody thing.

Oh, there are significant causes to complain, I suppose, if that's your stock and trade. Nobody on the show ever dies or is badly wounded...even in the most horrific car crash or gun-fight.

And women? They are pretty much utilized as set decoration.

How about realism? Well, let's just say that any TV series featuring John Saxon as a drugged-out religious cult leader probably isn't aiming strictly for realism.

But again, you either take a series like this on its own terms, or you don't take it at all. Your rational, logical mind may complain or rebel about some very important aspects of the narratives, plot resolutions and yeah, physics. 

Yet after watching an A-Team episode you may nonetheless find yourself smiling almost uncontrollably. There's a joie-de-vivre about the players on this classic TV program, and it acts like a giant black hole...sucking you in, even if you put up resistance.

The A-Team, which aired for 98 hour-long episodes, follows a group of Vietnam veterans hunted by the U.S. military. Renegades and modern-day cowboys, these team members now serve as on-the-run mercenaries.

So, as the series' opening narration reminds viewers -- at least before staccato machine-gun fire kicks in -- "if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The A-Team."

Team members include leader John "Hannibal" Smith (George Peppard), whose catchphrase is "I love it when a plan comes together," charming con man Lt. Templeton "Face" Peck (Dirk Benedict), crazy helicopter pilot "Howling Mad" Murdock (Dwight Schultz) and perpetually-cranky mechanic/driver B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus, played by Mr. T. Melina Culea portrays reporter Amy Allen in the early seasons of the series.

The first season A-Team episode "Children of Jamestown" is a perfect representation of the series' aesthetic. It begins in mid-mission (and in relatively tense fashion, I was surprised to see...) with the team attempting the rescue of a rich girl from the clutches of Martin James (Saxon), a sun-glass wearing, religious cult leader. The freed girl is delivered safely to her wealthy father, but Face, B.A., Hannibal and Amy are captured and taken to the Jamestown compound for "judgment."

There, the A-Team is granted an audience before James, who pretentiously recites a poem to them. Hannibal recites a poem in kind: "Hickory, Dickory, Dock..." he begins.

Outraged, James orders his machine-gun armed acolytes -- hulking muscle men in brown monks robes -- to free the prisoners and then hunt them down. In a convoy of surplus Army jeeps that the compound conveniently maintains

So, it's The Most Dangerous Game at Jonestown...

Now, right here, an engaged (and sober) viewer will start asking some pertinent questions. Why do these macho, grim acolytes feel it necessary to wear monk robes? 

More trenchantly, what do they get by serving the egotistical and difficult (and clearly bonkers) James? Why did they join the order? 

Furthermore, why all the jeeps and machine guns at a religious commune? What is the religious foundation for this order that it can incorporate both monks robes and heavy artillery?

But okay, the A-Team requires an army to fight every week, and in this episode, we get an army plus a wacky cult leader. It might not make strict sense, but there you have it.

So the A-Team escapes to a nearby farm, where a farmer and his gorgeous daughter live in fear of the cult and the cult leader. The family helps the team out, and Face has a little romance with the farmer's daughter, unaware, apparently, that the "farmer's daughter" scenario is the set-up of too many dirty jokes to count.

But hey! This is no ordinary farmer, let me tell you. He also happens to be an artist who sculpts metal in his spare time. His back yard thus resembles an auto junk yard. In short order, Hannibal, B.A., Amy and Face construct a flame-thrower turret on top of a commandeered jeep. Then, using a hot water heater and acetylene tanks, they build a missile launcher.

Then they take the battle right to James, who is leading his jeep convoy against the uncooperative farmer.

I love it when a plan comes together. Don't you?

I've watched several seasons of Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) recently, and was very, very impressed. Every single week, that series played matters absolutely straight, with a real, sincere attempt to seem realistic...even with strange gadgets, face-masks, and complicated plots in the mix. 

In other words, Mission: Impossible crafted a larger sense of "truth" around its stories, settings and characters. And the suspense was almost universally intense.

The A-Team, by contrast, plays nothing straight. It's a knowing put-up job from start-to-finish. 

For instance, this episode doesn't look seriously at cults, or at cult leaders. It doesn't examine the reasons why a farmer in the middle of nowhere would also have a machine shop. Nor does the narrative see the main characters -- except for Amy -- break a sweat. Instead, the narrative is but a hook for the action scenes and a lot of admittedly funny jokes.

What holds "this plan" together, in simple terms is the grace of the performers, and the unfettered sense of violent fun. Again, I can't argue that The A-Team is socially valuable stuff, only that -- as my Dad stated so memorably on a Tuesday night long, long ago -- it "diverts."

The A-Team hangs a lot on the chemistry between the actors. So it's a good thing they're such an agreeable bunch. Watching Face describe "the jazz," or having Hannibal get mad over the fact that James has taken his prized boots may not sound like scintillating television, but somehow -- with these guys, with these jokers, -- that's exactly what it is.

"Children of Jamestown" attempts, at one point, to wax serious, with Baracus telling Amy that the only to get through a situation like this is to "accept death." 

Why? Because it "frees you."

And the playful attitude of the A-Team TV series, I suppose, "frees you" too. After an especially hard day's work, the knowing silliness of this show is oddly infectious.

Pop Art: The A-Team Comic Book (Marvel Edition)

The A-Team: Shrinky Dinks

Modek Kit of the Week: The A-Team Van (AMT-ERTL)

Lunchbox of the Week: The A-Team

Trading Card of the Week: The A-Team (Topps; 1983)

Game Board of the Week: The A-Team