If you pitched me this movie on its superficial merits, i.e. a found-footage horror film about possession, it would immediately call to mind a half dozen other films about much the same thing, all of which are forgettable entries into an overcrowded subgenre. I suppose that’s why I had resisted seeing this film, despite recommendations from several trustworthy sources. Now that I have seen it, let me add to the chorus of voices who will tell you, “No, really, this is a good one of those. Not just good, but maybe pretty great.”
For starters, The Taking of Deborah Logan establishes a premise unique in this subgenre. The titular Deborah Logan (veteran soap actress Jill Larson, more on her in a minute) is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and has agreed to allow a film crew to document her struggles with the ailment. Her daughter, Sarah (Anne Ramsay, Dexter), encourages her mother to accept the documentarians into their home, largely for the money they have offered the family. It is clear very early that Sarah is a bit of a black sheep, and is in the habit of self-medicating with alcohol to dull the pain of her mother’s disease and its effects on their relationship.
What begins as a routine examination of Alzheimer’s becomes something more sinister, as the symptoms exhibited by Deborah appear to have a component of the mystical. In one instance early on, cameras observe Deborah moving from the kitchen floor to the top of the stove without moving. While one of the camera crew, Gavin (Brett Gentile) begins to suspect that something supernatural is at work, the rest, led by lead researcher Mia (Michelle Ang, Underemployed), rely on medicine to explain the bizarre goings-on, including Deborah’s use of foreign languages and intense bouts of self-mutilation.
Doctors are puzzled by Deborah’s condition, grasping for medical explanations while Sarah and the rest of the crew come to suspect that the cause of Deborah’s extreme behavior has something to do with a murder from the past. This winding narrative keeps things lively, even when the film falls back on found footage tropes to generate some of its scares.
There are a few reasons this movie stands head-and-shoulders above many movies released using found footage tactics. First and foremost, Jill Larson is extraordinary in this movie. She radiates a sense of menace when she chooses, other times displaying a heartbreaking vulnerability, and still other times embodying the confident and somewhat stodgy matriarch. She is given a real character to work with and, boy, does she run with the material. They say that to describe a performance as “brave” just means someone you may not necessarily want to see naked is shown in their altogether, like Kathy Bates in Finding Schmidt. At the risk of overusing the phrase, this is a genuinely brave performance, and not just because Larson does reveal herself in the film. No, this description applies to Larson’s performance because of the weaknesses she displays with her daughter, the nobility she desperately clings to, and the abandon with which she allows herself to be physical in key scenes. Jill Larson is, quite simply, a powerhouse, and I hope someone, somewhere has given an award to her for this performance.
Ramsay, too, represents herself well as the lesbian daughter of a proper old woman who is barely holding the threads together as she cares for her parent. One moment in particular stands out, in which Sarah tells the documentary crew about her first kiss with another girl and her mother’s reaction to it. The easy manner in the telling of the story and the clipped way it ends… it feels honest in a way that few movies capture.
And let’s talk about, or, more precisely, around, the ending of The Taking of Deborah Logan. There is a reveal that reminds me of The Borderlands in its impact, and that’s no small praise. Unlike that film, there is so much rich viewing in the preceding scenes, this feels like some nasty icing on a well-made cake as opposed to the entire reason to see the movie. I mean, her mouth….
But all is not perfect in Logan-land. Ang’s line deliveries fall flat here and there, and Luis (Jeremy DeCarlos), one of the camera men, is woefully underdeveloped. Also, there are a few of the usual tricks you expect from a found-footager – the quick pans to find something frightening, the manic bobbling of the camera as characters chase after one another – none of which are surprising, only disappointing. For a movie that displays such a strength of plot and character, these gimmicks feel unnecessary and cheap in comparison to the rest of the movie, but these are not unforgivable sins by any stretch.
Writer Gavin Heffernan and co-writer and director Adam Robitel have managed to breathe some life into this tired blend of supernatural possession and found footage in a way that is as refreshing as the thrilling Afflicted (a better movie in my estimation, but not by too wide a margin). As of this writing, The Taking of Deborah Logan is available on Netflix Instant, which gives you subscribers no reason not to give this movie a look. In a market overrun by sloppy attempts at cinema verite, this is one case where a clear passion preceded the filming. Imbued with an unsettling tone and anchored by Jill Larson’s terrific performance, The Taking of Deborah Logan deserves to be seen. And oh my god that mouth…