We must say this for The Quiet Ones: it's not lazy. As befits the august brand name of Hammer Film Productions, it is an attempt to do something with the most bland, generic gimcrackery of contemporary horror cinema, rather than simply giving into clichés and marketing concerns. It is idea-driven, rather than incident-driven, and it baldly asks complicated, unresolvable questions about how we know what we know, and what intellectual humility should attach itself to scientific progress. As a cinematic construct, it puts in a striking attempt to do something with the "looking through a camera and recording horrifying stuff" that, as far as I know, has never been done or even come close to being done in the way it is here. It is classy and restrained, with some of its tensest moments punctuated by a slow, confused release that comes when, despite the characters' (and the well-trained audience's) best expectations, there isn't a screaming nightmare beast jumping into frame from a dark corner. All in all, the film could be quite a great piece of genre work, except for the critical fault that it just isn't very successful at any of its high-minded ambitions.

After some reflection, I'm convinced that has a lot to do with the structure of the thing. The story - under the usual dubious "inspired by a true story" banner (among other small details, both the year and the continent have been changed) - takes place in and near Oxford, England, in 1974, where bossy professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) has assembled a small team to help him with a kind of paranormal investigation: his student-lover Krissi Dalton (Erin Richards), her other lover and fellow student Harry Abrams (Rory Fleck-Byrne), and Brian McNeil (Sam Claflin), who isn't a student at all, but an employee of the Oxford audio-visual department, hired on to film the proceedings. Those proceedings are all about the gaunt, mentally unwell Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), who suffers from what any normally superstitious person would identify on the spot as a demonic possession, but Coupland has other ideas: he's convinced that Jane simply has an excess of undigested emotional trauma from a past she can't consciously access, and all the supernatural things going on around her are solely the result of her overabundance of negative energy. His hope is that by curing her and proving himself right, he can cure all mental illness and "ghosts" in the world in one go.

For reasons that are decently plausible, this investigation ends up needing to take place in a rickety old house in the country that damn well ought to be haunted, and the creepy surroundings, coupled with the isolation, ends up making everybody pretty miserable, except for Coupland himself. The experiments seem to be heading in no direction at all, but it's increasingly clear, that, if nothing else, something is wrong with Jane, and it's starting to get a lot worse, and a lot stronger.

So, what was I talking about, when I mentioned the structure? Simply this: the film is a combination of footage from Brian's camera, and ordinary third-person filmmaking, and despite everything I'm about to say, the movie earns this much praise: it's not capricious or arbitrary in the shift from one perspective to the other. The Quiet Ones is mostly not about the existence or not of ghosts, or telekinesis, or whatever other spookiness attends to the plot: mostly, it's about the limitations of perception and the way that our understanding of the truth is filtered through what we see and recognise. Director John Pogue and his collaborators have clearly put some thought into how they can best explore that by defining the limitations of first-person storytelling and breaking out of it when necessary, with the film cleaving neatly into portions where the presence of the camera augments our sense of what's going on and what we're not seeing. The problem is that the film so obviously flaunts this very central element of its construction that the whole thing feels like a metanarrative game, a postmodern riff on horror rather than an actual expression of horror. Watching the film feels like looking through an increasingly diffuse series of plastic blocks, with the actual content trapped beneath one too many layers of separation that, while it might be intellectually sound, is utterly deadening on both dramatic and generic levels. The film manages at times to be effectively creepy - and I've already mentioned how cleverly the filmmakers indulge in scenes that lead up to jump scares that don't end up happening, giving the film a taut, unresolved feeling that works in its favor. But the whole thing is so beholden to alienation effects that it's really hard to ever care - and that's deadly for building scares.

Inasmuch as the film clings together at all, it's almost solely because of Harris, whose brusque, short-tempered academic know-it-all is a flawless depiction of a certain kind of bullying smugness, wholeheartedly convinced of its own all-round righteousness. And this is only sharpened when Coupland's theories are as specious, and as obviously wrong, as The Quiet Ones consistently depicts them as being; in the final act, as one of several howlingly ill-advised shock revelations, the committee-written script (Pogue, Craig Rosenberg, and Oren Moverman adapting a script originally by Tom de Ville) gives Coupland a reason for being so ruinously fixated on his pet theories and the ad hoc methods he uses to test them, but the film is far better when he's just a tenured jerk drunk on the ability to do whatever he wants and have admiring students line up to be abused and exploited by his bellowing refusal to even consider other ideas besides the ones he's chosen.

When it's primarily about the three people (four, if we count the not-quite-there Jane; Cooke's performance is the film's second-best as surely as Harris's is the best, though with much more of a stock figure to play) being caught up in Coupland's falling-apart theories, The Quiet Ones damn near works as a horror-tinged chamber drama; when it is about spooky, underlit houses with inexplicable goings-on - and it becomes this more and more as it progresses - it's merely adequate at best, and frequently not even that. There's a pervasive sense that it hadn't all been worked out quite when the script was finished, and the pacing is off, the parameters of the plot seem to keep shifting when we're not looking, and I really can't say enough bad things about the last 10 minutes and the revelations included in them. I admire the notion behind The Quiet Ones, and I'm glad that the rebuilding Hammer would rather make this kind of conceptual horror than the utterly dismal found footage junk food that dominates the genre nowadays; but we don't give out points for effort here, and whatever merit the idea has, the execution leaves everything to be desired.