SXSW Film Review – Ava’s Possessions
Jordan Galland’s Ava’s Possessions (2015) starts off in midstream. When we first meet Ava (Louisa Krause), she has just gone through an extensive exorcism held by Father Merrino (John Ventimiglia). Once back in control of her body, Ava realizes that she has been possessed for a whole month. During that time, the demon inside her did some pretty horrible things, resulting in Ava being charged with crimes such as battery, property damage, and indecent exposure. To stave off jail time, Ava enters a recovery system called Spiritual Possession Anonymous, a kind of AA where people can meet and work through their experiences under demonic…correction, “spiritual” influence.
This is an inspired concept from Galland, who writes and directs. In almost every horror movie involving possession, it’s always about the possession itself. What we never get to see is the aftermath of such an event. What do people do when they try to go back to normal life? Will their friends still see them the same way? Who takes care of the bills, handles the chores, or calls in to work to request sick time? And of course, there’s always the possibility of the demon returning. The strength of Galland’s idea is a good foundation, and early scenes show how he creatively works with it. This is a universe that has embraced the notion that possession is real, and acts a hindrance to our daily routines.
Galland displays a bold and stylish aesthetic. He is clearly a fan of the genre. The cinematography by Adrian Correia has splashes of big and bold color. Reds, greens, and blues dominate nighttime shots in exaggerated fashion, calling to mind the visual flair of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). Sean Lennon’s accompanying music has a rhythmic, highly synthesized texture reminiscent of Tangerine Dream or John Carpenter. The combination of two adds to the otherworldly tone appropriate for this kind of story.
The best parts involve Ava’s participation during the S.P.A. meetings. Led by the tough supervision of Tony (Wass Stevens), the sessions work as support to help people fight off possession on their own. It was funny to see characters discuss their relationships with their demon nonchalantly. Granted, the program is kind of superfluous since the possessed have no control over what the demon makes them do. But still, seeing characters participate in exercises had a strange entertaining quality to it. One character was so obsessed with their demon that they developed an emotional attachment, almost like an addict.
Dealing with the aftermath and trying to recover from possession is such an interesting perspective that it may have been too difficult to sustain. The early promise dwindles in momentum as the plot enters the second half. Ava’s dilemma almost becomes a second thought, replaced by an investigation that is nowhere near as engaging. As part of her recovery, Ava is tasked with interviewing those she encountered while the demon had control of her. Whether this is supposed to act as a cathartic exercise is never explained. Also, mysterious clues pop up that throw Ava for a loop. Bloodstains on her floorboards, a watch left on her couch, all these little things that make her wonder what happened during that month.
These multiple threads convolute the film. At one point, we see Ava interviewing a prostitute on the street, and in the next scene we see her flirting with a potential romance (one that comes about arbitrarily). And yet in another scene, she participates in a séance that can only lead to trouble. All these contrasting elements never blend together in a convincing way. Instead of focusing on Ava’s effort to strengthen her soul and fight back against the demons haunting her, she plays Sherlock Holmes in trying to piece together a puzzle that never creates a clear picture. When we get to the final act where all secrets are revealed, the connections that tie the strings feel flimsy at best.
Jordan Galland tried something unique here, and he should be commended for it. Ignoring the exorcism sequences and examining everything that happens after set difficult restrictions to overcome. I appreciate the attempt, even when I walked away feeling like that this was something of a missed opportunity. Galland is a promising craftsman, however. Purely on a visual and musical basis, the film is an accomplishment. His handle on the material and the way he presents it shows talent in setting mood and atmosphere. Louisa Krause is effective in the central role, staying committed to the character even when the things Ava goes through appear incomprehensible. Despite the positives, Ava’s Possessions simply didn’t push itself far enough to leave a lasting impression. It wasn’t scary enough to be straight horror, and it wasn’t funny enough to be straight comedy. There are scenes and sequences that edge toward the disturbing, but it doesn’t take the last step to get there.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with actress Louisa Krause and writer/director Jordan Galland from SXSW 2015.