Once upon a time I couldn’t get enough possession movies. Like zombies movies (and TV shows, and comics, and video games), they were thin on the ground, and any examples that came along were to be savoured. How times have changed. Familiarity breeds contempt, and these days I approach possession movies with the same sense of impending disappointment as I do zombie movies (and TV shows, and comics, and video games). The subgenre is bursting with recent entries, a lot of them high-profile, and almost all of them inadequate (THE DEVIL INSIDE, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, INSIDIOUS, THE POSSESSION, the last few PARANORMAL ACTIVITYs, HELLBENDERS, THE CONJURING, etc). The only thing worse than the prospect of yet another possession movie is yet another found footage possession movie. As a gimmick found footage is old hat, and as a format it doesn’t lend itself to the subject matter. Filmmakers have to work twice as hard to justify the format and avoid the clichés that abound. Sadly, first time writer/director David Jung hasn’t worked nearly hard enough to justify THE POSSESSION OF MICHAEL KING, yet another run-of-the-mill found footage demonic chiller straight off the production line.
The film starts well. The premise is fascinating – having lost his wife in a senseless accident, the titular Michael (Shane Johnson), a would-be documentarian, decides to immerse himself in the world of spiritualism and the supernatural, and attempt to debunk the notion of life after death. It’s a maudlin pursuit, driven by bitterness and grief, but it’s also a compelling conceit, and the early scenes of hallucinogen-fuelled satanic excess do it justice. It becomes less interesting when Michael suffers what appears to be a genuine possession, but the question of whether his ailment is psychological or metaphysical, whether he’s possessed or mad, is enough to keep us hooked. Until, that is, Jung dispenses with any lingering shreds of subtlety and ambiguity, and dives head first into the over-the-top horror.
As noted above, found footage is no longer a novelty. Directors have to bend over backwards to make them convincing, a feat Jung doesn’t come close to managing. For one thing, the dialogue is scripted (painfully so, in places). Found footage works best with an element of improvisation, something conspicuously absent from THE POSSESSION OF MICHAEL KING. For another, Jung fails to provide a convincing reason for the cameras to keep rolling. Michael’s life is falling apart, he’s losing his mind and suffering homicidal compulsions – maybe it’s time to put the camera down and get some help? It doesn’t work stylistically, either. When Michael is being filmed the various cuts suggest multiple cameras, which isn’t the case, and there are entirely too many convenient angles covered by his household CCTV. There are also too many auditory effects, and much of the action is scored. It simply isn’t persuasive enough to pass as authentic documentary.
With so much competition, THE POSSESSION OF MICHAEL KING would have to be blisteringly original to make an impact. It’s not original in the slightest. Cherry-picking elements of THE EXORCIST, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE LAST EXORCISM, and a slew of similar titles, it plays like a greatest hits of possession movies, ticking one clichéd box after another. There’s a modicum of gore (most of it self-inflicted), but the body count is almost nonexistent, and the sense of peril limited at best. On the plus side, Johnson’s performance is excellent (which is a relief, as he carries the film singlehandedly), and there are a few effective scares (especially at the start, when Michael’s reckless experimentation places him in situations far more chilling than those conjured by a Hollywood demon). Despite its high production values, sterling central performance and creepy ambiance, THE POSSESSION OF MICHAEL KING is a wasted opportunity. The idea is sound, but the clichéd execution and unconvincing presentation fail to stand out in an overcrowded market.