United States. Directed by Adam Robitel, 2014. Starring Jill Larson, Anne Ramsay, Michelle Ang. 90 minutes.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I humbly submit the following thesis: the found-footage fad needs to fuckin’ die already. And as my first piece of evidence, I submit Adam Robitel’s film The Taking of Deborah Logan. Jill Larson plays the title character, a widow in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She and her daughter Sarah (Anne Ramsay) have agreed allow student filmmaker Mia (Michelle Ang) to film their daily life as part of her thesis project. How much do you want to bet that once the cameras start rolling, freaky stuff starts happening around the Logan house, tied to a dark secret in Deborah’s past? Is the Pope Catholic?
I’ve seen my fair share of found-footage films over the years and if Deborah Logan doesn’t do the worst job of using the found-footage conceit it has to be in the bottom three. Even worse films, turkeys such as Atrocious and The Hollow, do a better job of presenting their stories as found-footage than this one does. The production visually quotes the Paranormal Activity franchise to the point where “rip-off” doesn’t seem too harsh a phrase; Robitel gleefully lifts tropes such as the “midnight camera cycle” (where the film cuts between footage taken from a series of cameras, always in the same order every time) and the ever-popular oscillating-mount security cam directly from the Featherstone family saga. If the inevitable Deborah Logan II uses an Xbox Kinect, I’m checking out.
Even better is the film’s insistence on presenting scenes as found-footage when there’s no need for it. One scene is apparently cobbled together from footage recorded by at least four separate cameras hidden around a hospital room. Later, it turns out the hospital uses the same brand of consumer-grade security cams Mia’s cameraman Luis favors. (It’s either that, or that Luis somehow managed to install four or five of his own security cameras around the hospital.) Another scene seems to imply that Mia’s assistant Gavin keeps his cameras on all night long, just in case strange noises wake him up.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the found-footage format literally ruined the film for me, and that’s all the more depressing because this film had some serious potential. Sure, the whole backstory with Desjardins is hogwash, but not so ridiculous as to make it impossible to overcome. The Alzheimer’s segments of the film are sensitively and powerfully written and portrayed. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen performances as brave as Larson and Ramsay’s. Ryan Cutrona shines as Deborah’s longtime neighbor and best friend; Brett Gentile does a much better job as one of Mia’s crew than he needs to give, and indeed than the film deserves. And there’s one shot towards the end of the film…my God, I fear it will eventually fuel my nightmares. And I don’t have nightmares.
Finally, to add insult to injury, the basic premise is what horror, as a genre, is for. Aliens and vampires and the ghostly spirits of pedophilic pediatricians are all well and good, but Alzheimer’s is scarier than all of those put together with the fringe benefit of being real. Some of the best supernatural horror operates by helping the audience work through, and come to grips with, the terrors of real life. Deborah Logan comes tantalizingly close to this goal of frisson, but too often sacrifices it on the twin altars of the found-footage bandwagon and the almighty jump scare.
There’s a good film hiding somewhere at the center of The Taking of Deborah Logan. Sadly, it’s not the one the filmmakers chose to make. The performances and a certain scene keep the production from being a total waste of time, but what I’ll remember most about it isn’t what it was, but what it should have been.