Monday, 6 March 2017

Two recent(ish) films offer new takes on a standard horror plot

Contains spoilers for Ava's Possessions and February (aka The Blackcoat's Daughter)

Demonic possession is one of the big horror plots. It's not quite up there with haunted houses or vampires or (yawn) zombies, but there are quite a few out there. And they almost all rip off the foul language and green bile spewing mother of them all, The Exorcist.

It's easy to see why. William Friedkin's film was unlike anything which came before and possesses (heh!) thematic depths which reward repeat viewing. It's beautifully written and brilliantly acted, leading it to be the first horror film to nominated for several Academy awards. Despite several key scenes being parodied into memetic status and some cheap looking effects shots, it still casts a chilly spell over the viewer and remains a masterpiece. (As a side note, I watched it again recently and this time I was taken by how bloody tense and unnerving the opening scenes in Iraq are).

Demonic possession films can also be relatively cheap to make, only needing a bit of make up on your victim and have them snarl, talk in Latin or use a glut of salty language. If you have a bit more budget then you can go for the levitating, head twisting, spider walking and projectile vomiting. Dress someone as a priest and get them to make with the holy water and the “the power of Christ compels you” stuff and you have yourself a film.

Very probably a rubbish film. A lot of possession flicks are just basic Exorcist rip offs with very little to recommend them. They bring nothing new to the table (unless you just make it a found footage film and forget to add an actual ending. Oh hi The Devil Inside) and forget the things that still make Friedkin's film so memorable.

Which is why Ava's Possessions and February are such nice, refreshing surprises. They are very different films, with one being significantly better than the other, but both do something new with the formula.

In the case of Jordan Galland's Ava's Possessions, the difference is entirely in the plot. The film starts with the titular heroine being exorcised, then follows her as she tries to put her life back together in the aftermath. She has (or believes that she has) committed a lot of terrible things while under the influence of her demon, causing emotional and physical damage to those around her. She is also facing potential jail time for her actions, unless she attends a rehabilitation group for formally possessed people. Also her family are acting a bit odd and there's a shit ton of blood in her apartment, implying that she killed someone.

Things get convoluted and the plot unravels a little towards the end. There's also a pretty major plot hole. If demonic possession is an accepted thing and as common in this universe as implied, then why is Ava being held responsible for her actions to the extent that she might go to jail? The obvious metaphor for drug addiction is a bit overdone, but it makes a change for usual metaphor, which usually about puberty (the Exorcist again) or sexuality. However, it's a nicely acted, fresh take on the usual tropes with a couple of nice scares and some laughs to be had.

Much better is Oz Perkins' February, which hits a lot of the usual plot beats but deviates from the norm in terms of form and technique. In this it is similar to the director's subsequent film I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, which seriously messed around with the haunted house story. While February isn't as odd as that film, it is definitely better.

We follow two plot strands and I'm probably not shocking anyone by revealing that they eventually intertwine. In one, two pupils of a Catholic boarding school (Kat and Rose) are forced to stay for the start of vacation when their parents fail to pick them up. In another, a mysterious young woman (Joan) accepts a lift with a couple who are driving to the town where said boarding school is based. The husband frequently tells Joan that she reminds him of their daughter, some she seems to find amusing.

One of these young woman is possessed. You can tell by the weird way she contorts her body, worships the boiler in the school basement and drops a major C-bomb. Oh and her habit of stabbing people right up. The possession goes along the usual horror film lines, with one difference: she very much wishes to remain possessed and is visibly distraught to be left on her own again (actually a plot point it shares with a side character in Ava's Possessions, though again that was about drug addiction while this is about loneliness and alienation).

So yeah, standard “the devil made me do it” stuff, but it's lifted by Perkins' brilliant direction. This is a film where everything seems a little bit “off” somehow. All of the characters act in a strange way, even the ones who don't have a supernatural back seat driver. He does my current favourite horror trick of holding shots longer than necessary to create unease. The normal narrative connective tissue is trimmed away and chronology is played with, leading to disorientation (he did this to great effect in ...Pretty Thing... but this is in service of a better film). It's utterly chilling, and not just because of the loving shots of abandoned, wintry places.

I watched February a couple of weeks ago and I'm still thinking about it. With this and his divisive (to say the least) sophomore effort, Perkins is showing himself to be the most exciting new director in horror, at least for those of us like it a bit more thoughtful. For me, he has made the only demonic possession film that is anywhere near to matching the profane glory of The Exorcist, though Ava's Possessions also gives me hope that other way of telling this story can be found.

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