When a student takes on a theology project, he taps into another side that had been hidden away from him.
Mary J. Dixon
Scott B. Hansen
Scott B. Hansen
Chris Minor as Brandon Jensen
Jake Brinn as Clay Harper
Nicky Jasper as Leda Morgan
A college student named Brandon, (Chris Minor), starts an online crowdfunding campaign to record a live stream of a demonic possession, with himself as the guinea pig. This would be a fantastic premise for a Black Mirror episode. Unfortunately, The Possession Experiment plays everything too safe. Exorcism is a tired sub-genre, and this is it’s stalest cracker.
But let me start with the positives. This movie has some of the best low-budget cinematography I have seen since ClownTown, and that’s no small feat. Anxious to impress, director Scott B. Hansen uses every trick in the book to bolster the cinematic experience. Almost all the outdoor scenes begin with a drone-camera aerial shot. Tense moments are underscored with rapid cuts. The lighting throughout is moody, claustrophobic. The sound design is decent, professional.
Chris Minor’s performance as Brandon is earnest, if inconsistent. Demon possession roles are taxing on actors, Linda Blair being the most notorious. It requires focus and intensity to wring raw emotion out of all that makeup. In this respect, Minor succeeds in spades. But the human scenes, especially opposite his love interest, (Nicky Jasper), fall painfully flat.
This script desperately needed a rewrite. The first half hour could easily have been exorcised, (wha-wha). The opening is convoluted drivel, solely designed to showcase the special effects. And what wonderful special effects they are. A true standout in the film. Every bloody scab, fake pustule, and supernatural levitation is believable. The soundtrack of otherworldly trills, shrieks, and growls is also effective, although the telegraphing silence before jump scares gets grating.
Watching two Catholic priests get eviscerated by a crab-walking girl spewing profanity, you just can’t shake that nagging sense of déjà vu. What was daring in 1973 with The Exorcist has long since passed into cliché. That is The Possession Experiment’s biggest flaw. It’s sheer familiarity, the breeding ground of contempt. A lot of the movie’s staleness could be overlooked, if the plot weren’t so convoluted.
In a nutshell, Brandon is a young man obsessed with the occult. He enrolls in a theology class to learn more about it. So far so good. But almost immediately the story gets derailed by a ludicrous backstory for Brandon, involving a history of demon possession in his family. That is so laughably convenient, it’s absurd. Why couldn’t Brandon just be an awkward teenager attracted to the “otherness” of the occult? That is far more relatable. Hell, I knew tons of kids like that in school. They shopped at Hot Topic.
What starts as a class experiment for Brandon turns dangerous. He is aided by fellow student Clay, (Jake Brinn), a stoner looking for an Easy A. Brinn’s performance is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the actor commits. Brinn tries to wrench as much nuance as he can from a stock, comic relief part. On the other hand, his moments are vapidly written. Every time goofball Clay shows up on-screen, you know you’re in for a cloying waste of time.
This could have been a dark satire about social media, the voyeurism which compels people to pay to see anything. It is a sad, disgusting reality. Remember when Kickstarter raised the equivalent of an average yearly salary to watch a man make potato salad? Scott B. Hansen and Mary J. Dixon’s screenplay doesn’t want to take that risk though. A shame, considering it’s about something as ethically dubious as exorcism. Rather than leave the question of Brandon’s mental health open-ended, the script feels the need to explicitly state possession is real. That is just not as interesting.
This movie also has no consistency with its supernatural worldbuilding. It throws secret cults and ouija boards at you without a single shred of internal logic. Is the demon hereditary? Or is it like a communicable disease? It can suddenly possess multiple people at once, (over a Skype call no less), with no explanation. What does the thing even want? If you don’t know the powers and limitations, you don’t know the stakes. There is no real drama here. It’s frustrating.
Director Hansen does have a knack for basic visual terror. In an early scene, as the two young men search an old, abandoned mansion for clues to Brandon’s family history, a ghostly woman keeps appearing at the edge of the frame. They don’t see her at first. She is half in shadow, out of focus, but clearly a presence. It’s unsettling, but then the musical score adds unnecessary tension hooks, utterly insulting the audience’s intelligence. One step forward, one step back. Quite frustrating. Great horror shouldn’t be spoonfed.
The Possession Experiment is currently on VOD. If you’re only interested in good horror effects, you won’t be disappointed. But there is little else on display here, and absolutely zero originality. It’s ridiculous and dumb, but not in the fun, popcorn way.