Review: The Possession of Michael King (dir. David Jung, 2014)

House of Mortal Sin

The Possession of Michael King
USA, 2014
Director: David Jung
Writers: David Jung and Tedi Sarafian

Review by N Emmett.

Michael King is left bereaved when his wife dies in an accident; as her fate was an indirect result of advice given to her by a fortune teller, Michael develops a hatred of anybody who encourages belief in the supernatural. He takes it upon himself to make a documentary which disproves the existence of paranormal phenomena.

Taking place in Los Angeles, Michael’s journey pits him not only against a Catholic priest but also against followers of fringe beliefs such as Satanism. He partakes in a ritual to invoke Haungore, a demon which preys on unbelievers and drives them to insanity. Slowly but surely, the once-skeptical Michael comes to realise that there is truth in this story…

The Possession of Michael King is not strictly speaking a found footage film, as it is not shot entirely from the point of view of Michael’s camera. However, its first act is rooted very much in mockumentary as Michael has himself filmed as he consorts with Satanists, mediums and necromancers.

There is something of TV documentary icon Louis Theroux in Michael’s film, with it putting  a “straight man” host alongside offbeat subcultures. However, instead of Theroux’s stiff-upper-lip tolerance, Michael adopts a smug, eye-rolling demeanour as he confronts what he considers to be mere poppycock.

posmi1Parts of the supposed documentary do not stand up to close inspection: how likely is it that Michael’s contacts would allow themselves to be filmed indulging in drug use, or – in the case of the necromancer – misusing a cadaver? These weaknesses can be excused thanks to the heavy comedy element of the first act.  Scenes such as the one showing Michael being teased by his cameraman as he recovers from an LSD-infused ritual could easily have come from a This Is Spinal Tap-like parody.

But once Michael becomes possessed, the parodic element quickly vanishes. The faith-versus-skepticism theme, meanwhile, turns out to have been a mere plot device to get things started. At its heart, The Possession of Michael King is about a man whose loss of his wife sends him on a downward spiral, causing him to damage his remaining family members – namely, his daughter and his younger sister.

Director David Jung has a good story on his hands, and succeeds in telling it through a series of character-driven scenes. Michael’s descent from likeable (if rather arrogant) family man to Mr. Hyde is convincingly portrayed, while his exchanges with his family members and documentary guests are handled well. But yet, The Possession of Michael King does not quite work, and this is largely posmi4because of some very odd formalistic decisions.

As noted above, this is not a found-footage film. But it seems to think that it is.

A large number of scenes in the film use three distinct cameras. One is the camera set up on a tripod by Michael. Another is a high-angle, CCTV-like camera, despite the fact that no such equipment  visible throughout the film (this angle is often used for establishing shots of the rooms in the house, strongly recalling Big Brother). The last is a shaky, hand-held camera – even though there is no character who could conceivably be holding it.

The constant flipping back and forth between diegetic and non-diegetic cameras quickly becomes disorienting. Even when the film is not using the found-footage format, its cinematography is clearly influenced by the found-footage style; it is almost as though the aesthetics of found-footage films have bled out into the wider horror genre – Are You There? being another film which demonstrates this curious effect.

posmi2Indeed, The Possession of Michael King seems to be utterly preoccupied with its own format: the film’s portrayal of supernatural phenomena is conveyed primarily through the language of audio-video recordings and broadcasts.

When Michael has a brief encounter with the spirit of his wife, he complains that he cannot hear her because of a noise which he compares to interference and static. When demonic activity occurs during documentary sequences, the digital video becomes distorted by pixelated blocks. When Michael sends a recording of his possessed speech to a sound engineer, the weird noises are dismissed as a technical fault. As the possessed Michael prowls the house, his point-of-view shots are rendered in green, grainy night vision. One scene has a live, on-screen recording of Michael taking on a life of its own as it suddenly becomes possessed, while another has Michael learning of his possessed state’s behaviour by watching home video – shades of Steven Moffat’s Jekyll.

All of this adds up to a cinematic style with real potential: a kind of cyberpunk ghost story. But, posmi3frustratingly, Jung does not seem to realise that he is on to something. Michael King has stylistic merit, but this appears to be the result of accident rather than design; and it is submerged by the film’s overall indecisiveness – is it found-footage, or third-person viewpoint? Is it a spoof, or played straight?

The Possession of Michael King is an oddity. It does not entirely cohere, but more patient viewers may well find something to appreciate, and there are definite signs of raw talent on the part of director David Jung. Hopefully his next project will show a tighter grasp on its aesthetics.