Focusing on the family in two new horror movies | Bleader

Focusing on the family in two new horror movies

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Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Possession
  • Jeffrey Dean Morgan in The Possession
During the Music Box Theatre's recent Noir City week, I decided I would arrive 15 to 20 minutes late to all the movies about a hero or heroine attempting to exonerate an innocent man jailed for murder (there were three of them). Depriving myself of the expository scenes—which would only set up a conflict familiar from a film I'd seen recently—I went straight to the guts of the movie, the better to appreciate the nuances that made it unique.

This proved a boon to enjoying the 1946 programmer Black Angel, as I was able to focus on the unconsummated romance between Dan Duryea and June Vincent, rather than on the investigation they led together. What a poignant movie it became! Working to free Vincent's husband for the murder of Duryea's wife shows both characters how well they get along, hinting at the life they might have lived together. There's a Kieslowskian meditation on chance buried under this shoddy mystery, and I probably would have missed it altogether if I'd involved myself in the central plot.

By a similar token, I wish that professional obligation hadn't required me to watch a couple of recent horror films, The Apparition and The Possession, in their entirety. I quite enjoyed the first 30 minutes of both films, when they were introducing their settings and main characters, but liked each one a lot less when their paranormal monsters showed up and initiated a familiar pattern of scare effects.

Broadly speaking, The Apparition and The Possession tell the same story, in which U.S. middle-class stability is threatened by supernatural forces. The Possession is the more conservative of the two films in that its vision of stability is a nuclear family led by a strong patriarch. (Spoilers ahead.) Even though the central couple is divorced at the beginning of the movie, their bond is reestablished by the end; and before that, the movie encourages spectators to sympathize with the father's experience and deplore his ex-wife, who blames him for the break-up of their marriage and treats him like dirt. When their ten-year-old daughter is possessed by a dybbuk (a vengeful spirit from Jewish mythology), the crisis only exacerbates the rupture in their family life. Fighting the supernatural—with the help of a Hasidic mystic, who comes from a patriarchal culture himself—leads them to heal that rift. (Dave Kehr's Reader capsule of Poltergeist seems a relevant aside here.)

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the put-upon father, a typically confident high school basketball coach. It's an interesting role in that it calls on the actor to play up his masculinity while simultaneously recognizing its limitations. Morgan's other daughter is a bourgeoning progressive who wants to spread the gospel of vegetarianism, and there are some nice scenes where he asks her, without condescending, about her goals. He seems to find it novel that a girl should be so proudly autonomous, and there's an endearing curiosity to how he probes the situation. Morgan and Madison Davenport, who plays the daughter, are acting out the small steps through which culture evolves. Their conversation doesn't quite jibe with the negative portrait of female autonomy incarnated by Kyra Sedgwick's nasty divorcee, but it succeeded in making me like this family enough to feel bad when the dybbuk started wrecking their two homes.

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The Apparition is the more progressive of the two films in that its central couple—fiances played by Sebastian Stan and soulful pin-up Ashley Greene—is defined by its gender equality. When the movie opens, Greene's character is the breadwinner, working to become a veterinarian while Stan bides his time installing electronics equipment. She also procures a place for them to stay in the California desert, a two-story house owned by her parents bought that's in need of housesitting. The movie doesn't make a big deal about either of these details: what's important is that the two really seem to like and trust each other. They seem like friends as much as lovers. Normal life for them is a casual, even makeshift affair, but it seems to work.

There are some telling details about how untenable their middle-class happiness is. The development where they're housesitting is notably underpopulated (only one other house in the community is occupied), and Stan's recent college graduate accepts his shitty service job as a fact of the present economy. If The Apparition isn't as scary as The Possession, it may have something to do with the fact that its central characters seem better prepared for their happiness to be disrupted.

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