Taking of Deborah Logan, The (2014)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-10-05 19:35

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 one’s faith. Not so much in a religious sense, mind you, but as a horror fan, it’s a potent reminder to never dismiss a premise, no matter how familiar or worn out it may be. Execution and details matter, especially when they’re as sharp as what’s on display here in a film that could be (reductively) considered the umpteenth found footage/possession movie riff. Generally speaking, there’s not much a seasoned horror fan hasn’t seen here, but it nonetheless thrives on a powerful performance and an intriguing, sordid sense of mystery.

Framed as a grad student’s documentary thesis, the film initially observes the very real horrors of Alzheimer’s. 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 mother’s (Jill Larson) struggle with the disease. Deborah is currently experiencing the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s: 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 Deborah’s increasingly disturbing, aggressive behavior.

It’s that something else that lingers over The Taking of Deborah Logan: it swirls about, constantly whispering in the background, piquing the audience’s curiosity. If not Alzheimer’s, just what is trying to steal away this poor woman’s soul? The answer is revealed rather deliberately as part of an investigation into Deborah’s 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 premise—there’s 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, I’ve come to find that this is a crucial element. While I understand the temptation to couch a film of this nature in a plot that’s 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 can’t 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 angle—suffice it to say, they don’t 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 they’re couched in such an oppressively sinister atmosphere, they take on a fresh menace: I can’t 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 can’t imagine how this film didn’t score a wide release—it would have certainly killed with a theater crowd.

Without the terrific performances underpinning them, however, these scares might not be nearly effective. Obviously, Larson’s incredible performance as Deborah propels the film, but Ramsay’s turn as her quietly desperate daughter is just as key. Tension exists between the two even before Deborah’s condition takes a turn for the worse. There are genuine, human regrets here, as the mother never approved of her daughter’s 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). Ramsay’s perpetually strained, weary face allows us to see—or perhaps even feel—the 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 Larson’s performance here. Her transformation is nothing short of chilling: when we first meet her, she’s a guarded but sweet woman, probably not unlike most people’s grandmother. Watching her succumb to the ravages of what appears to be Alzheimer’s 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 Larson’s 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*—I almost can’t 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 can’t 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 won’t 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 III—you know the one.

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