Friday, November 21, 2014

The Taking Of Deborah Logan: Forgetting Who You Are

Demonic possession stories go hand-in-hand with disease narratives. They’re the more spiritual cousin of body horror, where in both instances our bodies (and minds) become less our own over time, much in the way that the progress of degenerative diseases robs us of our ability and identity and dignity over time. They’re scary because they both tap into a loss of agency and identity that is damn near primal as fears go. Historically, many of things we define as mental illness today were once thought to be demonic possession, so it makes sense that most modern possession stories would begin as failures of the medical model. In The Rite, possession is treated as a long-term degenerative illness, complete with progressive symptomatology and the expectation that it will be managed, with periods of activity and remission. The Devil Inside takes a more conventional narrative approach, where possession is mistaken for disease, and the arrogance of medicine ends up costing the protagonists a great deal. Whether it’s a virus or a demon, it’s inside you, and it’s robbing you of your life.

The Taking Of Deborah Logan takes a slightly different tack, hiding the presence of an evil spirit behind the symptoms of a more conventional disorder. It’s an interesting approach, and the film starts strong before collapsing under the weight of its own narrative expectations and constraints.

A title card presents the film to us a priori as a documentary - or at least as a collection of footage taken from a documentary, along with surveillance video and whatever other sources the filmmakers were able to curate. We get the sense that what we are seeing memorializes an attempt to make a documentary - an attempt that went wrong somehow.

We open on Mia. She’s a young medical student who is, for some reason, making a documentary about Alzheimer’s disease and its effect on caregivers as a culminating project for her degree. To this end, she’s contacted Sarah Logan, who is taking care of her mother, Deborah. Deborah’s the sort of woman someone would describe as a “tough old bird”, very concerned with manners and propriety and remaining independent. She’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and is still struggling with what it means to have this disease. The dynamic between Sarah and Deborah is interesting, and one of the best parts of the movie’s first half. Sarah’s agreed to this documentary because money’s tight and they need the compensation. Deborah doesn’t like the idea, though, of having her helplessness documented on camera. She raised Sarah by herself and doesn’t like the idea of needing anybody, so there’s a push-and-pull added to what’s obviously already a very fractious relationship. Deborah doesn’t approve of how Sarah lives her life, and Sarah’s running herself ragged trying to manage her mother. Things are tense, and the addition of the film crew just makes things tenser. But Deborah agrees, and Mia, along with her crew Gavin and Luis, bunk down in the Logan household, setting up surveillance cameras and living onsite to capture everything.

It isn’t too soon after they arrive that things start to go awry. Deborah’s disease is progressing quickly - unusually so - and her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. She forgets things from the day before. She starts to believe people are hiding her things. She goes out into the backyard in the middle of the night to claw holes in the earth with her bare hands.

She begins talking to herself while staring into a mirror, begging some unseen figure to “let it stop.”

Like I said, it’s an interesting tack- it’s one thing to mistake what is obviously (to the audience) demonic possession for disease. That goes all the way back to The Exorcist. It’s another to hide possession behind the symptoms for an actual disorder. Of course Deborah is behaving erratically. She’s got a degenerative neural disease. The idea is that things get weirder and weirder until they become impossible to explain in terms of modern medicine. That’s fine. The problem is less with the story this film has to tell, and more with how it chooses to tell it. For something that’s relying on the mask of sanity and plausibility to sneak in the supernatural and trying to buy our goodwill with narrative verisimilitude, it doesn’t do a great job of selling the story it’s trying to tell.

It tries to establish narrative legitimacy through a found-footage approach, with its opening title card and the visual markers of hand-held and surveillance cameras, but it's never quite clear what the purpose of this collection of footage is or who it is for. If we’re watching a documentary intended for an audience, it’s entirely too sloppy. If we’re watching raw footage, why is there occasional background music? Part of making found-footage work is locating the footage in a specific type of documentary context, and this film sort of bounces back and forth between contexts as convenient for effect. In fact, by the halfway point, the idea that we're watching archival footage is pretty much abandoned for essentially conventionally-framed shots ostensibly taken from different sources of footage. It might as well have been a conventionally shot film, and probably would have been all the better for it, because the found-footage premise is stretched thin enough here to take you out of the film. 

And on the topic of verisimilitude, it also doesn't help when medicine features pretty strongly in the central narrative and many of the details don’t actually ring true for modern medicine. You have doctors talking about "split personality syndrome", something that Dissociative Identity Disorder hasn't been called in decades by medical professionals, if ever. Mia says she’s making this film for her “PhD thesis”, but she’s a medical student, so she’s a candidate for an MD, not a PhD. Even if she were a psychiatrist, it would be an MD she earned. I’m not a medical doctor, but I’m not aware of a culminating research product being necessary for an MD. And when you do present a culminating research product in fulfillment of a doctoral degree, it’s typically called a dissertation, not a thesis. And why is it a film, and not a scholarly paper? I’m not a gigantic fan of nitpicking-as-criticism, but this really reads to me like the writers didn’t do some very basic homework beforehand, and again, it takes you out of the film. That, or Mia doesn’t know what she’s talking about and she’s making the whole thing up, which could have been a cool twist, but nope.

The pacing is all over the place as well. The idea is that Deborah is degenerating slowly because she has Alzheimer's disease, and things start off subtly enough, but as things get worse, they start getting piled on pretty quickly. It’s not so much a decline as a sharp, rapid drop that isn’t well-accounted for by the passage of time In addition to her decline, we have the paranormal goings-on and that’s fine, but there are also hints of some hidden family secrets, and it all just ends up being too much for the narrative to carry. There are so many pieces to the plot that an explanation for the majority of what's really going on is sort of dumped on us about halfway through, in a huge glob of exposition that stretches believability by piling an entire mythology into maybe ten minutes' worth of film (to the point that one of the protagonists says "oh yeah, I'm surprised you haven't heard of this”, and then cues up a documentary-within-the-documentary to explain to them - and us - what's really going on) instead of letting the story either emerge more naturally or maybe finding a different way to explain things that doesn't require its own movie. It’s just a ton of detail and backstory crammed in in as inelegant and artless a fashion as possible, right up there with the sudden appearance of a professor to explain the entire history of the demon in Sinister. This isn’t the story of one woman’s struggle to remain in her own mind and body anymore, it’s the staging ground for yet another bogeyman, and it feels cheap.

It doesn’t help that most of the characters aren't especially sympathetic either - Mia is opportunistic from the start, lying to Deborah and Sarah to make them feel more at ease with no apparent compunction (which would be a pretty big ethical breach), her two cameramen are both unprofessional assholes, and Sarah, probably the most sympathetic person in the film, is a woman obviously pushed to the end of her rope by the strain of caring for a mother with whom she obviously has a very complicated relationship. That relationship would have been a really interesting thing to explore more, and could have been a way to get into the ideas of family secrets and provide some context outside of an exposition dump, but in the back half of the film it sort of gets sidelined and all Sarah gets to do is run around and yell a lot.

Which is too bad, because there are definitely some good ideas here. It starts strong enough, and for once the paranormal party isn't Satan or someone like that, which gives the whole thing an interesting twist and provides some really striking imagery - but the filmmakers tried to do too much all at once. They could have told a lot of the story through inference, spreading out necessary information through the whole of the film, and maybe made the central beat the slow mutual disintegration of Deborah and Sarah, pushing things into stranger and stranger territory instead of basically abandoning those factors halfway through to try and shoehorn in a bunch of complicated backstory. Deborah wants to be who she is, not what’s colonizing her, and she struggles against her worst impulses only to fail. The film essentially does the same thing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Europa Report: Out Of The Blue, Into The Black

People sometimes talk about horror films being “chilling,” which is a nice way to somaticize the experience of being frightened. There’s a shudder, a sense of discomfort and abandonment. We don’t call it “being left out in the cold” for nothing. The cold is threatening to our survival, as the dark is threatening to our survival. But there are chills and then there are chills. There’s the sudden shudder that sweeps your body, sure, but there’s also the slow, creeping cold. The kind that sneaks up on you a bit at a time and sinks into your bones, until you realize that all warmth is gone.

Europa Report, set against the blackness of space, is an understated, well-executed example of the monolithic, all-consuming chill.

We are told that what we are watching is declassified footage from the first manned space mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. Data taken from the moon suggested the presence of water underneath its icy crust, and patches of high temperature. And where there’s water, there might be (or once have been) life. Oh, sure, they could send out another probe, or they could send experts capable of doing things a probe can’t in order to make the most of what is basically a one-shot mission due to its cost. So a crew of six astronauts boards the privately-financed Europa One to make the long, cold trek into the dark. It’s not clear what happened to the mission, but the footage has only been recently declassified, and the talking-head interviews with the mission director and one of the astronauts suggests that something went very wrong.

In fact, the first footage we see is mostly crew members asking what they’re going to do about something that just happened. Someone is missing, and they’re talking about what they should tell his family. It’s elliptical, but it’s very apparent that someone is missing. And they aren't even to Europa yet.

It’s not an especially shocking beginning, but this isn't a movie that trades in quick scares, really. It’s measured, and unfolds in fragments that aren't entirely linear, as befits the nature of deep space communication. We’re seeing footage that took a long time to get back to Earth, and as it develops, the mission had problems with its communications array, so we get bursts from different perspectives, jumping back and forth in time as one disaster after another besets the mission. The atmosphere (ha-ha) is nicely understated- these characters are all pros, used to keeping their head in an emergency and working in dangerous conditions. An air of quiet competence surrounds them, even when things are going badly, and we know almost from the beginning that the mission hasn't gone off without a hitch, even if it takes some time to really get a sense of what’s happened. Personalities aren't especially fleshed out, but they don’t feel like stereotypes either. These are people who have gotten used to working with each other, for good or ill, and the dynamic emerges, like everything else, bit by bit and piece by piece.

In some ways, the mood reminds me of the front half of Alien, though the crew is far less contentious with each other, and the films is less an escalation into terror as it is a slow undertow of dread, as one thing goes wrong after another. It's a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that moves at a glacial pace, but never stops. It's not so much that nobody can hear you scream in space, as is it that it will take them months and years to hear it from where you are. It's a feeling of doom, abetted by the realistic scale of the whole mission and the relentlessness of an utterly hostile environment. 

The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows the filmmakers to play with our expectations a bit as well - it's worth keeping unspoiled, but there's a reveal in the third act that undermines a lot of our expectations for where everything is going, in a way that basically says "all bets are off" without really being a twist, per se. Basically the film, like the implacable dark of space itself, says that it doesn't matter what we want or what we expect - this is what's happening, this is why it happened that way, and this is the price we've paid for what we know now, as the narrative assembles itself and the last pieces fall into place, and the true cost makes itself known.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mockingbird: Let Mysteries Exist

One of my least favorite things in horror film is over-explaining. A big part of what makes things scary is mystery, and often the more we know about the antagonist or the circumstances in which the protagonists find themselves, the less potential it has to frighten us. It’s certainly possible for revelation to be frightening, but when there’s this urge to sort of tie everything together into a neat package of history and rational and causation, at best it saps some of the horror out of the proceedings, and at worst you get the sort of pants-on-head ridiculous mythology and backstory emblematic of most extended horror franchises. It stops being about “oh shit what is happening” and starts being about “well, now this is happening.”

One of the strengths of Mockingbird is that it knows well enough not to overexplain.

It opens with a title card that says “Once Upon A Time, In 1995”, and a disturbing slow point-of-view shot that ends with a young boy screaming “I did what you told me! I filmed everything! I never stopped filming!” before coming to a bad end.

(Again, I find these sort of opening setup shots a little annoying because yes, we know bad things are going to happen, you’re not establishing mood here. But it’s not egregious, and makes sense later on.)

Then we cut to a point-of-view shot of layers of wrapping paper being removed from inside the package, and this resolves into a man picking up a video camera out of a box and showing it to his wife. It appears to be a prize from a sweepstakes she entered the last time she was at the mall. Having established that this film does not take place in a world of ubiquitous recording devices, the camera (a pretty big, bulky thing) is a novelty, and the man sort of films everything, taken with the idea of this new toy, while his wife gets their two children ready to spend the weekend with their uncle. There is an intertitle that reads “The Family.” Next, we meet “The Woman”, a young woman living on her own in a guest house on a large estate. She’s in school, feeling a little lonely in a new city, and she’s received a camera as well. She plays around with it for a while as well. Finally, we meet “The Clown”, a slovenly young man who appears to live with his mother and doesn’t seem like he’s got a lot in the way of prospects. He receives a camera too, and he seems to think that he’s going to win a contest.

Four people, three cameras, and they soon enough discover that the cameras won’t turn off - they keep recording no matter what they do. And then they receive instructions as to what they need to do next, and what will happen if they stop recording. And then the opening scene begins to make more sense.

It could be thought of as a found-footage movie, albeit one that neatly sidesteps the "why don't they stop filming" problem by making it impossible to stop filming even if they want to, but it doesn’t really feel like a found-footage film, because what we’re seeing is less presented as raw documentary or archival footage as much as point-of-view as storytelling conceit - we see what the various protagonists do in real time, and the constantly shifting perspectives within as well as between protagonists keeps everything immediate and disorienting. The action is periodically punctuated with intertitles, all presented in a red, white, and blue color scheme that echoes the clues and objects presented to the protagonists throughout. It all feels of a piece, like the point wasn’t so much to present the footage as a real record of something that happened than just a way for us to be as much in the dark as the characters.

And the film does do a good job of keeping us in the dark - the intertitles give us sort of an idea of what to expect, insofar as they serve to punctuate the proceedings and suggest that we’re about to see another setpiece or incident, but they’re phrased mostly in terms of games (Surprise, Guess Who, Now You See Me…, etc.) which essentially undoes whatever closure we get from the presence of the title cards. We know something is going to happen, but without being given any real indication of what it’s going to be. The entire film takes place over the course of a single night, and the escalating nature of what our protagonists are put through as the night wears on is kept nicely tense as a result. It really isn't clear what's going to happen next, although we have some idea from the opening that it isn't going to be good, and it’s really, really difficult to predict where it’s going to go. We’re just as much adrift as the people we’re watching or through whose eyes we’re witnessing what’s going on. In some ways, it’s what’s good about found-footage without any real need to maintain the level of verisimilitude necessary for found-footage to work.

There’s not a lot of characterization to be had here - the family love their kids, the woman feels lonely and vulnerable, the clown is pretty much a loser ready to abandon his self-respect for a chance at a quick buck - but this is one of those movies where the whole point is less who these people are, and more about pieces being moved around a chessboard, and while we're watching it, it works. Their feelings of fear and desperation are palpable to us because we’re seeing events through their eyes, but we’re also an audience, we’re outside observers, and as such it becomes clear to us that everything that’s happening is engineered for theatrical effect - it's just obvious enough that a lot of it is recordings and misdirection and props. But that isn’t a problem, if anything it makes things even weirder, and the point is trying to figure out where this is all leading. Because the film doesn't ever really show us the antagonists, or give us any insight into their motivations, or try to explain how they're doing all of this, it leaves us free to concentrate on the mystery, on the sense of not knowing what's going to happen next.

Arching over all of it is the slow realization that these four people are somehow connected to each other through this macabre game, and the film takes its time bringing them all together, carefully revealing what the connections are and how it’s all going to fit in such a methodical way that the ending only really becomes apparent a few minutes before it resolves itself. Even knowing that things aren't what they seem, we know it's not going to end well, and the end gives us one last stinger, one last mystery, before turning the cameras off, leaving us as much in the dark as anyone else in the film. Under close examination, it falls apart a little - it’s tough to believe the antagonists are really capable of doing what they did, and there’s no sense of why these people were chosen or what the purpose was, but it’s like the clown says: “Let mysteries exist.” Sometimes it's better when we don't know everything, because the twisting feeling that mystery gives us in our gut as we watch four innocent people twist in the wind is evocative in ways that hours of mythology and backstory never will be.

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