Friday, August 21, 2015
Found Footage Friday: The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
[As always, beware of spoilers.]
Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a big difference in terms of found-footage horror movies.
The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) seems to understand this fact, and tweaks the familiar formula just enough to make the low-budget horror film seem fresh for much of its running time.
While it is true that the movie runs out of steam a bit in its third act, the film’s set-up is rock solid, and the movie is buttressed by a strong lead performance from Jill Larson. She creates in Deborah Logan a dignified, private individual that you come to truly care for. It actually hurts at times to watch Deborah’s physical and mental degeneration.
And though the movie concerns possession and Satanic rites, the underlying allegory here is about something else, something very real and very disturbing: the way that disease takes our loved ones away from us, a dramatic, monstrous piece at a time.
Indeed, the twists that elevate The Taking of Deborah Logan involve the story’s premise -- the recording of the daily life of an Alzheimer’s patient and her care-giver for two months -- and the unexpectedly realistic behavior of one memorable supporting character: Gavin (Brett Gentile).
On the former front, our main characters are not fame-seeking wannabes (as is the case in many found footage films), but rather a sympathetic student, and the family member of a very sick woman.
And on the latter front, a key character realizes what is really happening to Deborah, and cuts bait before he dies a horrible death. In one of the film’s most inspired moments, Gavin leaves the group recording Deborah’s experiences.
He drives away in a car, never to return, and we -- the audience -- for once have a legitimate surrogate.
An evil spirit possessing an old woman in a big, abandoned farmhouse, and communicating through an old switchboard machine?
I would be out of there in a flash, just like Gavin.
Hit the gas pedal and burn rubber...
The Taking of Deborah Logan features a strong first act too, because it diagrams exactly the steps Deborah will go through as Alzheimer’s progressively ravages her mind. The straight-faced approach to her condition (replete with documentary-style infographics) makes the film feel all-too real. And though the movie dips in quality a bit leading up to the finale, the ending sequence, set in a dark, subterranean mill by a river, successfully evokes a genuine -- and choking -- sense of dread.
So I was impressed by this film (which is free on Netflix). The Taking of Deborah Logan feels like a legitimate genre discovery because it proceeds with intelligence and guts, and doesn’t shy away from the questions and emotions that much more deeply ground the film in reality.
“There are no small tasks for Alzheimer’s patients.”
A graduate student named Mia (Michelle Ang) and her camera crew prepare to spend two months with Deborah Logan (Larson), an Alzheimer’s patient, and her caregiver, her daughter Sarah (Anne Ramsey).
The subject of their film is the physiological pressure that the disease can create not just in the sufferer, but in those who take care of the patient over a long duration.
Deborah is resistant at first, because she is a “very private person” and doesn’t want to be the butt of a joke. When Sarah convinces her that Mia’s intentions are educational, she acquiesces.
At first, Mia and her camera crew, including Gavin (Gentile) record normal interviews with Deborah.
The film crew learns that her husband died very early in their marriage, and she was left to take care of young Sarah by herself.
She did so, by running a telephone switchboard service for local professionals: doctors, lawyers and the like.
Soon, however, Gavin’s cameras begin to capture the fact that Deborah’s artwork has turned inexplicably dark, showcasing a looming figure in her garden, one lurking ever closer to the house’s windows.
Worse, Deborah experiences several night terrors in which she goes to the attic and operates the old switchboard machinery on the precise channel of a client long believed to be dead.
The sounds from the machine are analyzed, and strange, inhuman voices are detected.
Deborah also develops a strange rash on her back…like snake scales, and seems to be progressively losing touch with reality.
Mia and Sarah investigate the switchboard and learn more about the mysterious channel and the strange person who once made calls on it.
The history of this individual involves a local mass murder, and an old mill in the woods…
“I don’t think I’m the candidate for you.”
The Taking of Deborah Logan spends a good deal of running time exploring the effects of Alzheimer’s, and showcasing Deborah’s degradation, over time. For example, she begins to lose the capacity for organized thinking, and we see her several times stop in the middle of a seemingly mundane task, unable to motivate herself or collect her thoughts.
These moments are heart-breaking, and Jill Larson is so sympathetic and effective in this role. One gets the impression that Deborah is a kind of regal, private woman, but not particularly open or affectionate. Suddenly, her whole life is on a platter -- for all to see -- and she must reckon with behavior that even she acknowledges is odd, or at least abnormal.
The film also reveals, in horrifying dimensions, how Alzheimer’s patients typically end up. One shot of a dying patient in the hospital is real nightmare fodder in a real world sense. The poor soul is contorted, her face locked in an expression of abject agony.
This is not a way anyone would want to die. Or could imagine dying.
As the movie moves into more fantastic territory, involving a Satanic ritual that grants a petitioner immortality, the film sacrifices some of its hard-earned verisimilitude, but not enough to preclude your continued interest. By that point, you feel invested in Deborah, and also in Sarah, her refreshingly candid and open daughter.
The film’s lowest ebb comes in the scenes involving the local crimes, and the gentleman who was behind them. It all feels a little pat, a little too concrete. The Taking of Deborah Logan works best in terms of its ambiguity, when the audience isn’t certain if Deborah is just losing her mind, or becoming impacted by an evil presence. All the stuff about devil worship and the doctor who practiced it is stuff you’ve seen before, and distinctly ‘meh’ in presentation.
Yet several moments in the first few acts are downright scary, and marked by jump-out-of-your seat scares of the highest impact. One scene involves Gavin’s discovery of Deborah’s art-work by an open window…during impenetrable night. Another genuinely terrifying moment involves a sojourn into the dark attic, to that switchboard machine of the damned.
The scenes set at a hospital -- which involve the kidnapping of a virgin child -- are not nearly as compelling or interesting as anything that happens in the farmhouse, but the film’s climax is boosted by the Blair Witch-like setting and the visual approach.
Specifically, the film switches to night vision view as the survivors descend into a dirt-floored mill near a river bank, and seek to discover what Deborah has done with the missing child. There’s a genuine feel of claustrophobia and unpredictability about what happens in this nightmarish, effectively-shot location. But again, for some it may be a bit too fantastic in nature.
It’s entirely possible that The Taking of Deborah Logan could have focused less concretely on the Satanic/demonic angle and tread more fully in that realm of lingering uncertainty, where audiences couldn’t be certain which demon -- medical or literal -- was affecting a character of great dignity.
The film’s final sting, too, is pretty weak, and seems to undercut much of the intelligent debate about disease, and how it not only impacts those who suffer from it, but those around them too, who must not only see the disease progress, but lose their loved ones little by little, inch by inch. It’s difficult to know who has a more torturous time here, Sarah -- who has real issues with her Mom, but nonetheless takes care of her -- or Deborah, who is smart enough to realize that she is slipping away.
The Taking of Deborah Logan is a smart horror film when it hews to these ideas and characters, but far less so when it focuses on the familiar mechanics of the genre: pyrotechnics, gore, and twisty-gimmicky endings. Deborah’s final, bizarre transformation is one that is entirely unnecessary in a film that has created such a rich, scary atmosphere.
Still, for the first hour or so of The Taking of Deborah Logan, you’ll be convinced you’ve walked into a latter-day found-footage masterpiece. So much so that the film has enough momentum, even considering its third act, to keep you entertained, and more than that, riveted to the screen.