The best damned ‘demonic possession’ film since The Exorcist?

‘Found footage’ gets a bad rap these days, which is strange if you think about it: sure, there’s a lot of landfill made using the format, but we shouldn’t let a few bad apples – okay, a few hundred – give the format a bad name. After all, we don’t punish Bridesmaids because 90% of comedies aren’t funny. As with comedy, the hit/miss ratio of ‘found footage’ films is really a numbers game: for every hundred or so made, only one or two are any good: Wikipedia lists nine such films made before The Blair Witch Project (notably the notorious Cannibal Holocaust – although Stanley Kubrick could have been first, if he’d stuck with his concept of Dr Strangelove as a faux- documentary, purportedly discovered by aliens far in the future, revealing how the human race blew itself up), and over a hundred since. Now, to the short list of found footage films which don’t give the much-maligned format a bad name – Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Chronicle, Paranormal Activity, REC (and its US remake, Quarantine), the first two V/H/S films, The Bay, The Sacrament, and one or two others (see our VODcast “Found Footage: It’s Not All Junk”) – must be added The Taking of Deborah Logan, which is not only one of the format’s best films, it might also be the best film about demonic possession since The Exorcist.

Okay, a claim as bold as that needs some qualification, so let me make a brief aside: sure, there have been some decent films about demonic possession – The Exorcist III, The Last Exorcism, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Paranormal Activity 3, even REC – but the problem remains that The Exorcist is so damned good, it’s pretty much ruined every demonic possession horror film since. Think about it: The Exorcist had everything: a young girl in peril, pea soup, inhuman acrobatics, levitation, blasphemous ranting, speaking in tongues, violent outbursts, that 180 degree head turn, crusty skin, demonic eyes… what’s left for any other film to do? Every time you see a priest called in to exorcise a demon – such as in a recent episode of Constantine – you can’t help but think, “is the exorcism scene going to be a patch on The Exorcist?” And they normally aren’t. Williams Friedkin and Blatty left big shoes to fill, and although an episode of Penny Dreadful gave them a run for their money, no one has really come close to touching The Exorcist‘s depiction of demonic possession in a movie… until now.

But I digress. You’re here to hear about The Taking of Deborah Logan, co-written (with Gavin Heffernan) and directed by Adam Robitel, and produced by Bryan Singer (in who’s X-Men Robitel made his acting debut, in a literally throwaway role) – although I’m not going to say much about the plot, given that it’s yet another one of the those films where discovery is everything: the less you know going in, the better. Suffice to say that as part of her Ph.D thesis, Mia (Michelle Ang) plans to make a documentary about Alzheimer’s sufferer Deborah Logan (Jill Larson), whose mental deterioration has her daughter Sarah (Anne Ramsay) at her wits’ end. But soon after Mia and her two-man camera crew start filming, they begin to suspect that something other than Alzheimer’s might be affecting Deborah’s mind – or invading her body. 

The Taking of Deborah Logan proves the folly of dismissing the entire ‘found footage’ subgenre; although it should more accurately be described as ‘faux documentary, given that the footage has obviously been edited into shape, rather than recovered and presented ‘as is’. Robitel and Heffernan have studied the ‘found footage’ format, and avoided most of its pitfalls (including the perennial “Why would they be filming that?” question) except for the rule about casting a recognisable actor (Ramsay played Lisa Semple in Mad About You and Ellen Wolf in Dexter) – or two, if you happen a fan of daytime soap opera All My Children, in which Jill Larson played Opal. Even that forgivable indiscretion doesn’t compromise suspension of disbelief, as it normally might, because Larson and Ramsay are so damned good you soon forget you’ve ever since them in anything else, and invest completely in their faux-reality as mother and daughter.

But enough about the format: The Taking of Deborah Logan would probably be just as pant-wettingly scary regardless of how it was filmed. Robitel starts with a brilliant idea – a demonic possession story with a vulnerable elderly person as its victim – which he (and co-screenwriter Gavin Heffernan) then expand and develop as the film goes along, carried through some of the more outlandish developments by Larson’s astonishingly committed performance. (They don’t give out Oscars for horror films – The Silence of the Lambs being the exception that proves the rule – but if they did, Larson would surely be giving The Babadook‘s Essie Davis some competition next year). The result is not only a masterclass in the dramatic possibilities of the ‘found footage’ format, it’s one of the scariest horror films of the year, with one, or possibly two, of the most terrifying scenes in recent memory. Now if only I can stop remembering them…


David Hughes