For awhile, the supernatural thriller The Possession of Michael King, about an atheist documentarian and grieving widower who turns to the supernatural for answers, delivers the goods—ingenious concept, strong acting, palpable atmosphere and some genuine scares. And while there’s nothing quite new in David Jung’s moderately compelling “found footage” feature, there are spooky sequences and undeniable suspense before the film runs out of ideas at its midway point.
Filmmaker Michael King (Shane Johnson) is shooting a family documentary with his picture-perfect wife and young daughter before a tragic accident leaves his wife dead. Grasping for answers, he turns to the dead woman’s psychic (well-played by Dale Dickey, one of our best character actresses) whom he believes, in a narrative stretch, is indirectly responsible for her death, an event leading non-believer King to embark upon a therapeutic doc about the supernatural (why this would provide him any answers or closure is quite unclear). His premise? He’ll work his hardest to become possessed, which surely won’t happen. Right?
After enlisting a cameraman and employing the overused found footage device, some of what is being filmed is actually quite frightening, and that’s where The Possession of Michael King really works. The further this skeptic goes, the closer he gets to the root of evil, courtesy of a handful of occultists, black magic practitioners, mystics and otherwise frightening fringe-dwellers, allowing each to involve him in their rituals—including a creepy mortician whose specialty is necromancy, and a very scary scene in a basement grotto involving a seemingly middle-class couple who perform a satanic ritual, a sequence that made my hair stand on end. There’s also a frightening moment with a fake medium who, for once, gets it exactly right. It’s strong stuff, not accomplished with any CGI but merely with lighting, sound and darkness.
Yet once these séances and ceremonies are complete, and King finds himself overtaken by a demon, the film surprisingly loses much of its spell, despite the terrific performance by the handsome Johnson, who literally crumbles, on camera, in a futile search of an exorcism. It’s this part of the film that isn’t frightening, fun or particularly interesting, employing allusions to The Shining, The Exorcist and scores of other possession pictures.
In horror movies today, the supernatural is code today for low-budget scarefests churned out every month or so, some of which are solid (Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism) some dodgy (The Possession, The Devil’s Due), and some that really scare (The Conjuring, in a class of its own, and Sinister). The Possession of Michael King falls somewhere in the middle—it’s not insulting, has some thrills and holds us, at least for its first half.
There’s also some cheating with the found footage device which presents a fundamental credibility gap in the elaborate camera placements, which betray the documentary approach, and a (very effective) bombastic score that complements a series of cheap shock cuts in the final reels, the kind which undo the artfulness of the set-up.