Tag Archives: Possession

CAPSULE: DANIEL ISN’T REAL (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Chukwudi Iwuji, Mary Stuart Masterson

PLOT: Escaping an unpleasant encounter between his parents, young Luke instead witnesses the aftermath of a mass murder; immediately following, his friend Daniel manifests.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTDaniel Isn’t Real‘s beautiful visual style, that at times evokes techno-metal Suspiria, is put to the service of an engaging story about the connection between demonic possession and mental illness. Despite the advent of hundreds of Apocrypha slots, however, Daniel Isn’t Real hews much more closely to distorted horror than the insanity we’d prefer.

COMMENTS: As rip-offs go, Daniel Isn’t Real is a mighty fine one. I use that phrase without its negative connotations; as the director himself explained after the movie, it is important for filmmakers to be able to rip off what’s come before. They can grow when what starts as an explicit homage becomes something new. Adam Mortimer is growing as a director, and there ‘s no shame in him acknowledging his influences. He began as a music video director, a background that served him well for the dreamlike nature of this movie.

At its core, Daniel Isn’t Real is the story of a troubled young artist on the cusp of schizophrenia. Luke (Miles Robbins) acquired the mysterious friend named Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) during his childhood. Now Daniel, once locked in an otherworldly, fortress-like dollhouse for having pushed young Luke to try to kill his mother, appears again. He shows up at just the right time, it seems, helping Luke to navigate college life, giving him advice and support, and, in one amusing scene, even helping him to cheat on a math test. However, Daniel begins resenting Luke’s control and seeks to take control of Luke’s body. As for Luke, he experiences the cost of following the lead of a wholly uninhibited, and violent, part of of himself.

Mortimer described the visual aesthetic of the film—particularly Daniel’s world—as “ultraviolet.” It’s a handy term, despite the fact that that “color” is technically in the invisible part of the spectrum. Daniel’s unreal purple lighting cues reinforce the character’s underlying menace (which is established well by Patrick Schwarzenegger’s channeling ‘s American Psycho-yuppie). This contrast between the soft and gentle illumination of Luke’s world and Daniel’s underworld is the primary motif that helps the audience differentiate visually what they’re experiencing in the narrative. Luke’s real world goes drab and sickens into an amber palette as his grip on his own mind and body disintegrates.

The main joy I found in Daniel Isn’t Real comes from its early depiction of the relationship between the two sides of Luke. (Or, the movie suggests, the relationship between Luke and this mystical entity that has entered his psyche.) Their playful relationship as young boys is reminiscent of experiences of those who were outcasts growing up. Tying the dangers of mental trauma to the metaphor of demonic possession makes it clear that, as much as we may find comfort in the manifestation of our “stronger” side, our insecurities are the signposts of what keeps us anchored to those around us. By skating on the edge of psychological horror and supernatural horror, Adam Mortimer performs a neat hat trick that kept me gripped right through the final fantastical showdown.

You can also listen to our interview with director Aama Egypt Mortimer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mind-bendingly freaky psychological horrorshow that crawls disconcertingly into your head and stays in there, gnawing away, long after the credits fade… Echoes of the creeping, dissociative paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant-era Polanski run throughout the film, but Daniel Isn’t Real is very much its own distinct fever dream of chimerical unease. Highly recommended.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (festival screening)

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BETWEEN WORLDS (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Maria Pulera

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, , Penelope Mitchell, Garrett Clayton, Gwendolyn Mulamba

PLOT: Joe, a down-on-his-luck trucker, drives Julie to the hospital to visit her comatose daughter, Billie; when he helps Julie travel to the “other side” so she can guide her daughter’s soul back to this world, the spirit of Joe’s dead wife takes the opportunity to hijack Billie’s body.

Still from Between Worlds (2018)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Twin Peaks, Washington meets Small Town, Alabama in a heart-warming-turns-disturbing tale featuring a possessed teenage girl and a frazzled Nicolas Cage-as-truck-driver who has a history of reading the erotic remembrances of… Nicolas Cage.

COMMENTS: When Maria Pulera watched “Twin Peaks” while growing up, I’m sure she said to herself, “I can do that.” And so she does, with the great Nicolas Cage front and center (and the great Angelo Badalamenti noodling musically in the background). Cage’s performance as a burnt-out trucker plays like a B-side to his Mandy animalism; and while I wouldn’t say he goes off the deep end, he’s about as close as any realistic scenario might allow. At least as realistic as the “dead-wife’s-soul-steals-comatose-girl’s-body” plotline can be expected to be. Everything comes crashing together in an Alabama melodrama ripped from a ’90s-drenched Tales from the Crypt episode, culminating in something altogether bizarre.

Pity poor Joe (Nicolas Cage). We meet him, boot-first, as he’s trying to convince his boss that he’ll get his truck payment settled next month. No dice, the truck is to be repossessed, and Joe, with his mountain of worry, takes comfort in a gas station foot-long. Hearing strange thumps from the restroom, he charges in and beats down a man strangling a woman. The woman, another trucker named Julie (Franka Potente—yes, that one) is nonplussed at this ostensible rescue, as she was trying to meet up with her daughter’s soul. Joe can’t help but try to do the right thing, so he drives her to the hospital where her daughter, Billie (Penelope Mitchell), rests coma-style. His spiritual baggage comes with him, unfortunately, so when Julie tries again to reach her daughter, Joe’s dead wife uses the opportunity to sneak back into this world.

Between Worlds‘ first act plays as a bizarre resurrection of Nicolas Cage’s more lamentable ’90s comedy stylings as funneled through a David Lynch fan-girl’s love letter to them both. I suspect (hope) virtually none of you have heard of (and, even less, sat through) the 1994 rom-com It Could Happen to You, but I was having flashbacks to Cage’s cop character, but now having been dragged through the ringer after losing his wife and daughter in a fire and forced to wash “NoDoz” down by the mouthful with swigs of whiskey. The sweet, lovey-dovey first act where Joe bonds with Julie goes by quickly, in its oddball way, before the reality of the situation sinks in that this isn’t a romantic comedy.

Frankly, I had a great time watching this1, and the expression I had on my face by the end confirmed my suspicion that what I was watching, though perhaps derivative, was quite strange. A smooth jazz score keeps prodding you (like in “Twin Peaks”), creepy evil is made manifest through possession (like in “Twin Peaks”), and there’s even a bad boy Bobby Briggs character (like in…). If you don’t like Cage, you will not like this movie; but if you do like Cage, then I recommend you hop in your truck and take a spin through Maria Pulera’s Alabama.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you saw ‘Mandy,’ and wished more Nicolas Cage movies were dark, weird, and personal: watch ‘Between Worlds’ and be careful what you wish for.” –Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SEA OF DUST (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Scott Bunt

FEATURING: Troy Holland, Sarah Dauber, , Ingrid Pitt

PLOT: Prester John, a mythological crusader king, possesses the bodies of 19th century

Still from Sea of Dust

Germans to manifest his sadistic religious ideology in this world.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTSea of Dust is a tough case: it’s definitely weird, but at the same time it’s neither polished enough to be counted as one of the best weird movies of all time, nor bad enough to earn the so bad it’s weird designation that could get it on to the List through the back door.  The movie is worth a cautious recommendation for those who can overlook its ample flaws—bad acting, stilted dialogue, and an anti-religion message delivered with just a tad more subtlety than Religulous—and just want to soak in the b-movie weirdness of the “WTF?” third act.

COMMENTS:  Much of the time, Sea of Dust is like a Hammer Studios period movie acted by community theater thespians, with the addition of spurting gore effects supplied by exploding-head maestro Tom Savini.  As you watch the introduction where a rich landowner rejects a young medical student’s pleas for the hand of his daughter, your first thought will probably be “poorly acted and scripted.” That’s a shame, because the film gets better as the weirdness builds in later reels, and you may find yourself drawn into the movie if you can overlook the acting and dialogue and make it through the first half.  In the actors’ defense, it’s hard to sound convincing when you’re asked to deliver lines like “I really do apologize, I’ve never tried to kill someone before.  It’s very unlike me, I wouldn’t want you to think I behave like this all the time” just the way a 19th century German peasant girl who just been possessed by the spirit of a mythological crusader king would.  (An even more challenging line delivery comes when the hero is washed up unconscious on a beach and awakened by a fisherman who inserts a wicked hook attached to a staff through his chin and drags him a few feet through the surf: mildly perturbed, he whines, “Was that really necessary? You poked a hole in me!”)  If these descriptions make it sound like Sea of Dust is the work of incompetents, the look of the film belies that impression: the photography, lighting, costuming (lots of waistcoats and bodices), believable period sets, and editing are all strictly pro.  Even the special effects, while obviously cheap, are effective: there are multiple gore effects (an exploding head, a pitchfork through the head), and there’s a fluid sequence where a steadicam rushes through forests and into other dimensions where a beautiful siren awaits, and another one where the camera enters a maggot-ridden brain through a puncture wound in the head.  Even more importantly, for our purposes, there’s a lot of imaginative weirdness in the movie’s second half to recommend it.  We get multiple flagellations, two finger-sucking scenes, a crucified Tom Savini with dilated pupils, surgery on a hollow Ingrid Pitt, a cat-woman “harpy” in a black latex bodysuit who urinates on torture victims, and an ending that involves dreams inside of dreams and should leave the viewer well confused about who has triumphed.  At any rate, you have to give Sea of Dust credit: the film is overambitious, which is almost always a better thing than being underambitious.  A movie’s reach should exceed its grasp.

The film’s villain, Prester John, was a “real” legendary king during the Crusades; he was said to rule a Christian kingdom to the east of the Holy Land.  In writer/director Bunt’s vision he is a blatantly fictional creation of the kings of Europe during the crusades to lure volunteers into the wars.  In the film, people’s belief in Prester John causes him to take on a real existence, though he can only effect this world by possessing the souls of others.  Belief in Prester acts like a zombie virus in the affected villagers, but what’s unexplained is why the king would have a Sadean worldview, proclaiming pain is “the most delicious sensation” and perverting the Christian message into one that seeks to maximize suffering and therefore views inflicting cruelty as a holy act.  No orthodox Christians appear to oppose the evil; the good guys are rational Enlightenment scientists, men of medicine.  It’s not exactly what you would call a subtle or fair-minded allegory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film’s budgetary drawbacks and Bunt’s inexperience actually work in SEA OF DUST’s favor. The quick shifts in tone and occasional awkward transitions contribute to the movie’s dream-logic quality, adding a surface layer of Lovecraftian surrealism.”–Mike Watt, Fangoria (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE CHAIR (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Brett Sullivan

FEATURING: Alanna Chisholm, Lauren Roy, Nick Abraham, Paul Soren

PLOT: A new tenant in an old house is sucked into a sordid, violent riddle when she

Still from The Chair (2007)

discovers evidence of sick psychological experiments.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Chair offers a novel twist on the age old soul possession concept, as seen in films such as Child’s Play or The Skeleton Key.  That twist is perverse and unsettling.  The movie becomes puzzling when parts of the story are told non-sequentially,  from changing perspectives.  While it may have an unconventional feel, The Chair is still a more or less standard horror story about a soul seeking a new host.

COMMENTS:  Don’t be fooled by the opening shots when you watch The Chair.  It is not as customary as it appears to be.  It tricks the viewer.  Not fast-paced enough to be a horror-thriller, The Chair is an imaginative horror-mystery with puzzler and shocker elements.  The film develops it’s storyline differently than other supernatural vehicles.

Here is the setup: Danielle rents a creepy Victorian house (is there any other kind?) where slightly sinister things start to occur—slowly.  Due to the mildness of the events, and because the movie would last all of five minutes if Danielle left, she doesn’t think of simply moving out.

Oh, and conveniently, Danielle is a psychology student with an interest in the paranormal.  She wants to capitalize on the spooky bumps in the night and investigate them to have material for her senior thesis.  (Apparently Danielle has enough imagination to take an interest in parapsychology, but not enough to pick a no-brainer psychology research topic like ‘partial reinforcement similarities between cocaine and World Of Warcraft.’)   Lucky for us, because someone has to stick their neck out or we would be watching another mild-mannered Poltergeist retread.

And so Danielle pokes around the creaky manor and turns up eerie hidden rooms, bizarre metaphysics documents, disturbing furniture, and puzzling mechanical parts.  All of this leads her to discover that an occult scientist  a century before found some very interesting uses for mesmerism when he dabbled in suspended animation, the trapping of souls, and other funny business.  The results of his efforts created a lasting malevolent Continue reading CAPSULE: THE CHAIR (2007)