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REVIEW: The Possession Experiment (2016)

Horror loving student, Brandon Jensen, is fascinated by the dark and occult. When provided the opportunity to delve into the world of exorcism, Brandon dives into a case from twenty years ago. Investigating further, he discovers an object that will allow him to make contact with the other side… offer himself to the unknown for possession. With crowdfunding and the assistance of Clay and Leda, Brandon hopes to prove to the whole world that possession is real; however, none of them will be ready for the consequences of such a choice in life…and death.

The Possession Experiment is something of a missed opportunity; a film that almost habitually misses the potential of its strongest elements. Firstly, it must be said that the idea to confront the scepticism around the supernatural and frame it within the supposed transparent truth of the social media tinted modernity is a bold and fascinating one in terms of the scope to question the validity of this increasingly permissive environment, as well as potentially contrast the fearmongering and mythmaking of the past with that of the cult of online rumour and fluid identity. However, the film never really dives deeply enough into the potential complexity of the clash between modern culture and classical superstitions that are seemingly ripe for true horror; instead, throw away comments of audiences who call the action ‘fake’ and the rolling funds of a crowdfunding campaign offer precisely nothing. The idea of the masses being drawn to violence and fear like moth to flame…is no revelation in the slightest, particularly in a medium whose undying cult is enough proof of this without having to cheapen it with quite frankly bland and redundant comment. Furthermore, there is no consistency to speak of whatsoever: the film bounces between so many different genre markers and stylistic techniques, stretching from clichés of The Exorcist to seemingly as far as experimental horror Begotten. It at times feels like director Scott B. Hansen, in his search to deliver an experience, tries just too hard. It’s difficult to critique the exuberance behind this impulse, but unfortunately it is to the film’s detriment as it becomes sloppy and unfocused, only serving to distance the audience from the strained narrative on display.

Indeed, perhaps it is the weakness of the narrative spine that is in part responsible for this jarring sense of cinematic schizophrenia, as the initial build up evaporates into something that eschews compelling complexity for narrative developments that would make M. Night Shyamalan go, ‘I might pass on a twist there’ and a sense of drive that roughly reflects the nature of day following night…it just sort of keeps happening, and you are expected to go along with it. Yet, going along with the narrative as it unravels, only leads to a confused and ultimately unsatisfying end, which makes its thankfully brief runtime feel worryingly grinding.

Perhaps the one aspect of the film that works effectively is the texture of the gore and violence on display. Hansen is never afraid to frame the violent content of the story with an unflinching sense of brutality; each major kill is captured with an eye for the practical effect which serves to give some horrific moments added texture, as the sense of bones cracking, blood and bile haemorrhaging  suddenly has a tangible weight. However, Hansen also injects these set piece kills with a sense of playful interaction with the audience, none more so than Brandon’s Freddy Krueger homage, involving a handful of scalpels used with malicious intent.

And yet this casual darkness seems to feed directly into my most loathed aspect of the film: its treatment of women, in particular Leda. Midway through the film, there is a sequence which holds, certainly in my opinion, an implication of rape, or some kind of unreciprocated sexual advance at the very least, with absolutely no dramatic motivation beyond ‘well this must be a sign he is possessed!’ Even more frustratingly, for the rest of the film…NOTHING ABOUT THIS EVENT IS ADDRESSED! All we hear from Leda is “he’s not himself” as she desperately seeks to save him. Even in the introduction to Leda, she is placed in a single focus: Clay picks her to assist them because of her bikini clad picture on social media. At no point is there even an attempt to round her into anything more as eye candy and, inevitably, as victim. It’s a callously handled in its absolute avoidance of any sort of repercussion or confrontation with the reality of the subject. This is more than any potential comment on the casual treatment of rape culture…this is to deny the character a voice, and only serves to reinforce the complete lack of complexity or intelligence in a film that truly had scope for such probing questions. Here, Hansen treats real horror with almost arrogant denial, in favour of tired cliché over spooks and projectile vomiting. If The Exorcist is a visual marker, then all the intangible subtly of that work is severely lost in translation, ringing the death knell of The Possession Experiment in the echo of its void.

While the film’s premise holds initial promise conceptually, sadly critical issues with performance, structure, tone and particularly the representation and treatment of women cripple The Possession Experiment, making it a near disastrous affair which borders on the distasteful and certainly ill-conceived.


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