Monday, September 3, 2012

The Dilemma of Theater-Going (As Exemplified by The Possession)

I try to catch most horror films during their theatrical release. This is because I firmly believe that every dollar you spend at the box office is a vote cast for the kind of movies you want to see produced. I want more horror movies, so I support horror movies with my hard-earned cash. The trouble is, of course, that you don’t know if a movie is any good until after you’ve plunked down your $8.50 for the ticket. I try to avoid reading advance reviews, because I find they color my perception too much, so my only resource in deciding whether or not to see a movie is its preview, which we all know can be horribly misleading.
I skipped The Chernobyl Diaries because it looked terrible, and I missed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter because I want to cast my vote for horror movie intended to actually be scary. I shelled out some bucks to see The Devil Inside back in February, and turned out to be to one person aside from the director’s mother that actually liked the film (and I’m just assuming about dude’s mom).  Demonic possession movies just work for me, owing to a massive childhood fear of The Exorcist. So when I saw the trailer for The Possession, I thought it looked pretty promising, despite its being PG-13. It had a strong cast and some pretty creepy visuals, and it had been so long since a horror movie opened in a theater near me, so the decision was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, so was the film.
The Possession claims to be inspired by true events, but it turns out the true event is that someone was selling a box on Ebay that they claimed contained a Jewish demon, or Dybbuk. Several people have bought and sold the box, each claiming strange phenomena and nightmares (plus the scent of cat urine and Jasmine flowers – you take the good with the bad, I guess) had followed the purchase--claims that surely increased the value of the box with each resale. The worst things reported to have happened were an uncannily-times stroke and some hair falling out. Nothing about possession, fork stabbings, or swarms of moths as portrayed in the movie. But hey, a horror movie about lost hair just doesn’t sell tickets.
Anything even remotely creepy in the film had already been covered in the preview, and all the “scares” just fell utterly flat. The Possession, notably, resists the well-worn staple of mainstream horror, the jump-scare. Instead, it builds up a slight amount of tension, then projects the scare a mile away, revealing the scary figure looming behind someone early enough that when the character finally sees it, it has become another piece of set-dressing for the audience. I’ll take jump scares over this any day.
What The Possession doesn’t  steal from The Exorcist it cribs from recycled American J-horror. Yeah, fingers emerging from the back of someone’s throat seems like a scary idea, but that same kind of thing was done way better in The Grudge.
On the upside, the performances were very good, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgewick as recently divorced parents juggling childrearing duties, each giving a heartfelt and real performance. Likewise, the young girl who played the recipient of the shiny, new demon did an admirable job. So much so that the film really should have worked. I was sucked in by the relationships and the characters, but that never translated into horror at seeing their lives torn apart by demonic possession.
So, a total waste of money, right? Not entirely. This is one of those cases where the experience of going to the theater for a communal experience really paid off. As utterly ineffective “scares” and disappointment piled up, I became increasingly fascinated by the 2 teenage girls in the front row (and not for the reason you think, perv). They were screaming at everything and getting off priceless one-liners like “Do NOT touch the box!” in total seriousness. One of them drew her legs up to her chest and was peeking out at the screen from behind her knees. When something “scary” would happen, she wouldn’t just look away, but turn her whole body away, nearly in a laying position. At one point I thought she was literally going to start crying. It got to the point the whenever the tension would start to amp up, I’d stop watching the movie and watch them instead. Grizzled horror movie veteran that I am, I found this hilarious.
Near the end it got so intense for them that the one with the stronger constitution started making dumb jokes just to calm the other down. Then they started to get giggly, which might have annoyed me at a movie I was into, but in this case I was just interested in their coping techniques. Then, in mid-giggle the movie pulled out its one and only effective jump-scare, and they simultaneously erupted into blood-curdling screams that put to shame anything onscreen. That was it, directly behind them, I let out a howl of laughter and for the first time that night I thought to myself, “I’m so glad I saw this in the theater.”
It just goes to show that no matter how trite and overdone these horror conventions might be to us, jaded hardcore horror fans that we are, it’s always someone’s first scary movie. It would serve us well to remember that most horror films that get a national release were not made for us who count Martyrs and The Devil’s Rejects among our favorites. They’re made for the widest possible audience—the ones who might catch one horror movie a year, and a PG-13 one at that.