“Inspired by actual events,” claims the latest release from the revived British studio Hammer without offering any indication of the source or veracity of the groundless statement, the first desperate indication that the film may be more of an exercise in marketing rather than storytelling. With both eyes firmly on the American box office where The Woman in Black claimed over 40% of its global takings, director John Pogue (previously writer of U S Marshals, Ghost Ship and The Skulls and its two direct to video sequels) has opted for a narrative of long interludes of boredom interrupted by sudden loud noises, a drift from the traditional story based horror on which Hammer built its reputation, emulating the current Stateside form of the genre.
“Hands up who would rather see a priest or a doctor?” asks Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris), a professor of abstract and unspecified discipline as he shows his class footage of one of his earliest patients, David, resembling nothing so much as a cuckoo flown in from Midwich. Determined to prove his theory that manifestations of the supposedly supernatural are in fact mental illness, his current subject is the orphaned Jane Harper, passed around the foster system and unable to find a permanent family due to the unexplained events which plague her, portrayed as a teenager but with her later revealed backstory being inconsistent with both her appearance and actress Olivia Cooke’s real age.
“Cure one patient and we cure mankind,” Coupland declares unilaterally, his failure to consider that there might be different types of mental illness a wilful blindness which blights both his authority and undermines the credibility of the students who follow his monomaniacal theories without question, though neither are the university board particularly concerned about the ethics of the experiment so long as it doesn’t take place on the campus grounds.
With dialogue purely functional and expanding nothing of the lives of the characters beyond their immediate engagement, neither they nor their situation is believable, Brian McNeil (Sam Claflin) documenting all on his handheld camera while Harry Abrams (Rory Fleck-Byrne) rigs the monitoring equipment, his girlfriend Kristina Dalton (Erin Richards) serving no purpose other than to cause friction between the men and give lip service to the conflicts of interest which would have inspired a more involving film had they been developed.
Set in the summer of 1974, anything as superfluous as context (the three day week, the state of emergency in Northern Ireland and the IRA bombing campaign, the general election that removed Conservative Edward Heath and installed Labour’s Harold Wilson) is considered as optional as character development. Even the fashions are incongruously inauthentic, with the men in toned down plain tops and checked shirts and Krissi in floral print dresses of a cut that testify to the modernity of the film, the only genuine period indulgence the naïve credulity given to mystical mumbo jumbo and pseudoscience which belies Coupland’s earlier challenge to baseless faith.
A more intelligent script would have offered tantalising hints over whether Jane was possessed, disturbed or manipulative, but manifesting her “negative energy” in computer generated “teleplasm,” it is immediately apparent that the reported phenomena are real, ergo possession, but rather than taking as a template either The Exorcist or Poltergeist, Pogue has for some chosen to avoid any mystery or ambiguity and instead tried to recreate the abomination of Exorcist II.
The key to a successful horror is that the audience should be able to feel themselves in the place of the characters, asking whether what they are witnessing could be genuine, questioning how an effect was achieved and if it could have been real rather than immediately dismissing it as a post-production addition which was never witnessed by anyone involved in the production outside of an effects house. When the whole aim of the film is to make an audience believe the depicted events could happen, any amateur fakery and digital alteration undermines the whole effort.
Where a classic film such as The Haunting works because of the troubles the characters brought with them to Hill House, this is a bunch of kids playing séance and parlour tricks, flipping between the traditional film and the “found footage” of Brian’s copious documentation without generating any atmosphere other than profound indifference, the explosions of bangs and shaking furniture arriving with tedious predictability. With nothing worthwhile to say for themselves, instead of being merely quiet, it would have been preferable had Jane and her mutilated doll Evey remained totally silent.