Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Asmodexia: Revelations

Demonic possession movies do a good, solid line as horror films go. They’re sort of the utility players, never really falling out of favor but never really dominating the slate in any given year. I don’t know that I’m a sucker for them as a type, but I have to admit, I’ve liked a lot of the ones I’ve seen since I started writing this thing, and The Last Exorcism and Ahi Va El Diablo come immediately to mind as two of my favorite horror films. There’s often a real disease or illness subtext to them - The Rite presented us with possession as chronic illness, The Taking of Deborah Logan presented it as degenerative illness, and in most possession films, it ends up being the real cause behind what initially seems to be some sort of mental or physical malady. I guess this is appropriate since one of the earliest explanations for what we now call mental illness was possession by evil spirits. It’s a link forged in history and culture.

So the brief for Asmodexia suggests that its hook is possession as communicable illness. At first I was leery, because that could end up being yet another hackneyed riff on zombie films, of which I am most definitely tired. Much to my delight, it is not that at all. It’s a slow, careful crawl toward dread and the horror of revelation.

The film opens with closeups on a VCR, a videotape marked “Luna,” footage of a mysteriously traumatic childbirth, and a man screaming to a terrified woman, forcing her to look at the child who has just been born. It isn’t at all clear what has just happened, and then we flash-forward to 15 years later. Which, at first, made me sigh, because I am tired of pointless flashback-and-“years later” constructions.

Except that it’s “15 years later...3 days before the resurrection.” Huh.

The body of the film is three basic stories - an old man (the one from the flashback) and his granddaughter, a woman confined to a mental hospital, and two police officers investigating a series of mysterious deaths. All of them take place in and around Barcelona while, in the background, strange things are happening. It’s an unseasonably hot December, it’s coming up on the end of the Mayan calendar, Christian sects throughout Spain are engaging in all kinds of ritualistic behavior, and all over the country, more and more people are exhibiting the signs of what anyone else would call demonic possession. It’s apocalyptic in every sense of the word - the old man and his granddaughter wander from place to place, performing exorcisms as they go, almost like plague doctors treating an epidemic. The woman in the hospital watches as the order of the hospital crumbles around her as more and more of the patients succumb to the supernatural infection. The detectives, always one step behind the old man and his granddaughter, are trying to figure out what the pattern is behind these deaths, just one step behind the chaos beginning to embrace the world. Everything is falling apart.

It’s initially a difficult sell - the structure is clear enough, but the film starts very slowly and is at first a little hard to follow. It’s very elliptical, mostly made up of long, static shots with little interrupting them, or conversations between two people in isolation from everything else. These scenes are broken up largely with dissolves, so it feels like we’re shifting between three different movies without necessarily there being a lot of continuity from moment to moment. It takes a little bit to locate everyone in the story, so the first act especially feels like it jumps around a lot, especially given how little context it has at first with the opening flashback. There’s also sort of an overuse of dramatic music stings and ominous ambient music over what seem like otherwise innocuous scenes - I get that the filmmakers are trying to create an atmosphere of unease, but it’s a little ham-handed in places, and doesn’t always feel like the sound is being contrasted with the image in a meaningful way.

But none of that is really, ultimately, that much of a problem because this is a film that rewards patience and careful attention. It’s not at all immediately apparent how everything and everyone fits together, and so the beginning of the film is a little confusing, but things do cohere - there are connections between the people in these three storylines, and they aren’t always what or how you’d think. Really, the film is a process of revelation - what these people have in common, what they are in the process of doing, what has happened in the past, and what is happening now. It would be a cliché to say that nothing is what it seems, but the appeal of this film is the way it goes about fitting all the pieces together. Even for a movie about possession, everything’s a bit off around the edges, like it’s not following the demonic-possession playbook exactly, and what may seem like quirks at first begin to make sense the longer you watch. The tableaux broken up by dissolves, the weird clashes between sound and image, and a story that seems a little off on the details all contribute to this feeling of dreamlike wrongness. It isn’t really until the last 15 minutes or so that the full implications of everything you’ve seen really begin to click into place, and so the cold, sick, sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach is a strong payoff of everything that came before. It’s the slowest and quietest and coldest of burns. I’ve talked before about the “horror of revelation,” that moment when the awful truth begins to make sense and comprehension is terrifying, and this film is an excellent example of that horror at work.

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