Wednesday, December 17, 2014

High School Possession (Hybrid/Production Media Group, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was High School Possession, a real weirdie Lifetime originally aired on October 25 and ballyhooed as usual as a “world premiere,” which turned out to be dementedly silly even though the trailer was quite a “cheat” — more on that later. It’s basically the story of a typical angst-ridden youth rebel, Chloe Mitchell (played by Jennifer Stone, whose animate-kewpie doll appearance is actually quite good for the role), whose life has gone off the rails since her mom Bonnie (the still quite hot Iona Skye) divorced her dad. Over the course of the movie, written by Hans Wasserburger and directed by Peter Sullivan (both of them with their tongues no doubt firmly jammed against their cheeks at the sheer silliness of it all), Chloe goes through not only the usual signs of movie-teen alienation — she snaps at people, claims they’re out to get her, does drugs and alcohol, self-mutilates, cuts class and listens to loud, obnoxious music (I’ve written in these pages how the device on which your standard-issue alienated movie teen plays their loud, obnoxious music has changed, reflecting how youth’s preferred music storage media have changed: in the old days it was an LP player, then a CD player, then a personal computer on which she’s downloaded songs, and now it’s an iPod-like player she’s listening to through ear buds — no doubt the next time Lifetime addresses this theme she’ll be blasting out music on her smartphone!) — and a few others of her own, including carrying out three-way conversations with herself (the old schtick of having her “good” and “evil” sides audibly arguing with her and each other over what she should do next) and seeing weird little special-effects projections flying past her. Her best friend, Lauren Brady (Janel Parrish), is an investigative reporter for their high-school paper and is also the girlfriend of its editor, Mase Adkins (Chris Brochu). She decides to join a campus Christian group, “The Chosen,” ostensibly to research an article about them but really to find out if Chloe is demonically possessed and, with secular psychiatry apparently unable to help her (her mom, played by Kelly Hu with one of the worst hairdos ever draped across the scalp of a basically attractive woman, has taken her to three psychiatrists, none of them have been able to help solve her problems, and the last one freaks both mom and daughter out when he recommends placing her in a mental hospital), maybe what she really needs is an exorcism.

They attend the local church and talk to the minister, Reverend Young (William McNamara), about setting up an exorcism — Young, a surprisingly sexy guy whom we see only in street clothes (and his denomination is carefully unspecified even though my understanding is exorcism is specifically a Roman Catholic schtick), says he’s performed exorcisms before but he has a tough admissions process, including a 50-question questionnaire, to make sure the would-be exorcee is genuinely possessed and not simply suffering from a secular mental illness. This is the part of the story which the trailer “cheats” on — the trailer shows Father Young approving the exorcism of Chloe but in the movie itself, he decides she’s developing a pretty ordinary case of paranoid schizophrenia and isn’t demonically possessed at all. So Olivia Marks (Shanley Caswell), the student leader of “The Chosen,” decides to break into the church and do a D.I.Y. exorcism on Chloe, and just before the evening they’ve chosen she ominously asks Lauren, “Are you in or out?” Lauren assures Olivia she’s in, only she gets horrified once Olivia and her “Chosen” buddies — including Olivia’s boyfriend Brad (Spencer Neville) — tie Chloe to the altar, put a towel over her face, pour a pitcher of water over her and do that again. Lauren protests that she didn’t sign on to waterboard Chloe, and so the other “Chosen” people there overpower her, lock her in a church closet and continue with the ceremony, at the climax of which Olivia takes a ceremonial dagger and is about to stab Chloe through the heart with it. It seems that Olivia went off the rails herself during an earlier scene at a drunken party when she saw Chloe emerge from a bedroom with Brad, hurriedly putting on his clothes again after he and Chloe had had sex — no doubt Olivia was doing the true-love-waits number while Brad’s love, or at least his gonads, weren’t willing to wait any longer, and with Chloe’s madness expressing itself as sexual rambunctiousness he was ready and eager to get seduced. Only Olivia has decided that by coming between her and Brad, Chloe has forfeited her right to live and her soul needs to be dispatched either to heaven or hell considerably ahead of schedule. Lauren breaks out of that closet long enough to stop the proceedings before Olivia can off Chloe, and though the church is locked from the outside the two barely manage to escape … and there’s a final tag scene, identified in a typical Lifetime credit as “Six Months Later,” which takes place at their high-school graduation. It’s explained that Chloe did a stint in a mental hospital and she got better enough not only to graduate from high school but to win admittance to USC on a soccer scholarship (does USC have a scholarship program for women soccer players?), while in a final scene Olivia herself is being released from a similar institution after leaving behind a notebook in which she’s written the name “Chloe Mitchell” over and over and over again, warning us that Chloe is still in mortal danger from this literal Jesus freak.

High School Possession is basically a drearily ordinary teen-alienation movie with a 15-minute gimmick climax uneasily grafted on, competently but decently directed and competently but decently acted as well — the roles of Chloe and Lauren have a lot more potential meat on their bones than Jennifer Stone and Janet Parrish find (though at least Jennifer Stone seems to have done her own voice when she was supposed to be demonically possessed — she didn’t rely on an old-time actress to dub them for her the way Linda Blair was dubbed by Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist — McCambridge had been in a mental institution herself recovering from alcoholism and remembered the anguished screams and guttural moans from her fellow patients in creating the “possessed” voice for that film) — though it was nice to see some genuinely attractive young men among the actors playing high-school students, especially Chris Brochu as Mase and Spencer Neville as Brad (their pages don’t list their actual ages but I suspect they’re a few years older than high school — more to the good, I say; I’m not into “robbing the cradle” not only for the legal risk but because actual teenage boys do very little for me; I keep imagining myself saying to them, “Come back when you’re a few years older … ”) as well as the surprisingly sexy William McNamara as Reverend Young. There aren’t any “daddy” figures in this movie — unless you count the priest and Chloe’s soccer coach (Michael C. Mahon) — because both Chloe’s and Lauren’s actual fathers aren’t in the picture; Chloe’s mom is a divorcée and Lauren’s is a widow (though a rather grungy-looking guy turns up at the end of Chloe’s graduation ceremony and I suppose we’re meant to think that’s Chloe’s dad). Overall it’s a decently made movie that can’t overcome the fundamental silliness of the concept, with competent thriller direction but almost no sense of the Gothic (and what’s a possession story — even an alleged one — without a sense of the Gothic?).