Written by: Adam Robitel, Gavin Heffernan
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Starring: Jill Larson, Anne Ramsay, and Michelle Ang
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Evil lives within you.
Ironically enough, The Taking of Deborah Long is the sort of movie that reaffirms oneís faith. Not so much in a religious sense, mind you, but as a horror fan, itís a potent reminder to never dismiss a premise, no matter how familiar or worn out it may be. Execution and details matter, especially when theyíre as sharp as whatís on display here in a film that could be (reductively) considered the umpteenth found footage/possession movie riff. Generally speaking, thereís not much a seasoned horror fan hasnít seen here, but it nonetheless thrives on a powerful performance and an intriguing, sordid sense of mystery.
Framed as a grad studentís documentary thesis, the film initially observes the very real horrors of Alzheimerís. In her desperation to both help her mother and save her childhood home, Sarah Logan (Anne Ramsay) has turned a PhD candidate (Michelle Ang) to document her motherís (Jill Larson) struggle with the disease. Deborah is currently experiencing the early symptoms of Alzheimerís: occasional forgetfulness, wild mood-swings, and general anxiety. When her symptoms become more pronounced, the doctors are worried that the disease has somehow advanced at an unprecedented rate. Soon, however, it becomes clear that something else is responsible for Deborahís increasingly disturbing, aggressive behavior.
Itís that something else that lingers over The Taking of Deborah Logan: it swirls about, constantly whispering in the background, piquing the audienceís curiosity. If not Alzheimerís, just what is trying to steal away this poor womanís soul? The answer is revealed rather deliberately as part of an investigation into Deborahís past. To say there are skeletons rattling around in the closet is an understatement: even when Sarah and the crew dig up something approaching an explanation, the mystery seems to grow more inexplicable. A cool mythology forms around the backstory here that you might not expect given the premiseóthereís a sort of zig-zagging nature to the story that sends the audience down a path that explores a grisly local legend involving pagan sacrifices and whatnot.
When it comes to found footage movies, Iíve come to find that this is a crucial element. While I understand the temptation to couch a film of this nature in a plot thatís just minimal enough to grease the wheels, the best efforts go a step further by making it a genuinely interesting and intricate part of the film. The Taking of Deborah Logan excels at this: once the crew uncovers the lead that blows the lid off of the story, the film feels more like a novel you canít put down. You just want to flip through all of the evidence and leads to arrive at all the buried secrets and horrified truths these characters have repressed. Co-writers Gavin Heffernan and Adam Robitel eventually tap into an irresistible and unique angleósuffice it to say, they donít lean on the usual possession movie explanations.
Other familiar tropes from that genre appear, particularly the mysterious noises, impossible feats, the strange behavior. But since theyíre couched in such an oppressively sinister atmosphere, they take on a fresh menace: I canít recall the last time a film of this nature had me dreading every peek around a corner or jumping at every jump scare. To paraphrase one of the cameramen, you begin to wonder just how many fucking scary attics and basement this house has. With the exception of a handful of scenes, this is a film loaded wall-to-wall with various scares: some subtly burrow under your skin, while other scenes have you jumping out of it. I canít imagine how this film didnít score a wide releaseóit would have certainly killed with a theater crowd.
Without the terrific performances underpinning them, however, these scares might not be nearly effective. Obviously, Larsonís incredible performance as Deborah propels the film, but Ramsayís turn as her quietly desperate daughter is just as key. Tension exists between the two even before Deborahís condition takes a turn for the worse. There are genuine, human regrets here, as the mother never approved of her daughterís lesbianism, something that Sarah carries with her despite her attempts to reconcile with her mom (and this is to say nothing of the devastating revelations later in the film). Ramsayís perpetually strained, weary face allows us to seeóor perhaps even feelóthe stakes here in a way that all effective possession movies should strive for.
The best possession movies also feature an indelible lead performance by the possessed. Rattle off the list in your mind, and then immediately add Larsonís performance here. Her transformation is nothing short of chilling: when we first meet her, sheís a guarded but sweet woman, probably not unlike most peopleís grandmother. Watching her succumb to the ravages of what appears to be Alzheimerís is heartbreaking, matched only by just how fucking terrifying it is when she succumbs to the sinister forces preying on her body. Her performance feels straight up unholy: between the make-up effects and Larsonís incredible change in demeanor, the transformation is remarkable. She convincingly becomes an entirely different person altogether.
When the performance and story converge and really let loose, the film spirals towards a wicked third act that spans hospital rooms to abandoned mines. An unbelievably unnerving sequence, it climaxes with a staggering image that made me gasp out loud*óI almost canít believe it goes there. Not only that, but it continues to go even darker: The Taking of Deborah Logan is unrelentingly, oppressively ominous until its final shot, at which point it feels practically wry. This movie wants to fuck you up, and it succeeds so thoroughly that I canít wait to see what Adam Robitel does with Insidious: Chapter 4. I can say without reservation that this stunning debut makes him appear to be a natural fit.
*I wonít be surprised if everyone knows this as the scene from this film in a few years, sort of along the lines of that scene in The Exorcist IIIóyou know the one.
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