'The Possession of David O'Reilly', Or, Paranormal Inactivity

by W. Scott Poole

15 November 2010

O’Reilly is maybe possessed, maybe haunted by a ghost or maybe just losing his marbles in spectacularly pyrotechnic fashion.
cover art

The Possession of David O'Reilly

Director: Andrew Cull, Steve Isles
Cast: Giles Alderson, Francesca Fowler, Nicholas Shaw

US DVD: 16 Nov 2010

“You know when see something out of the corner of your eye and you turn and its not there?” This question comes from the titular figure in The Possession of David O’Reilly who is tortured by disturbing sounds, night terrors and, perhaps, severe mental illness. In directorial team Andrew Cull and Steve Isle’s first film, O’Reilly is maybe possessed, maybe haunted by a ghost or maybe just losing his marbles in spectacularly pyrotechnic fashion.

He’s also the worst houseguest of all time. He appears, late at night, at the door of London couple Kate and Alex with a tale of betrayal by his long-time girlfriend. Welcomed by his friends, he quickly gets his paranormal freak on, seeing apparitions in mirrors, having ghostly visitations and standing over Kate and Alex’s bed in the middle of the night. Increasingly the couple, especially Alex, become caught up in David’s nightmare world and begin to see the shapes in the shadows.

Comparisons between this small British production and the Paranormal Activity franchise are inevitable. Although there are some obvious similarities, Possession aspires to a somewhat deeper experience of horror than the there’s- something- behind-the-door/standing-over-our-bed creepiness of Paranormal Activity.

In the best example of this, a somewhat cerebral discussion of the meaning of monsters, David asserts that “if there are monsters and devils” then there must a God. In one of the character’s many bleary-eyed moments of despair, he screeches that there is a hell but no heaven, his off-kilter mental state suggesting that psychological, rather than demonic, mischief is really at work. Indeed, this ambiguity is maintained throughout, though with some fairly cheesy slips along the way.

The first half hour is by far the strongest segment of the film. The Possession of David O’Reilly starts with promising menace, giving us trances, sleepwalking, monsters in mirrors, strange noises and shadows that are maybe not shadows. Filled with a quiet gothicism, the juxtaposition of everyday normalcy with the sense of things not quit right creates a truly unsettling feeling. Solid performances from relatively new and unknown actors Francesca Fowler and Nicolas Shaw help give a sense of reality to the couple that invites David O’Reilly, and a world of horror, into their flat. Giles Alderson as O’Reilly is convincingly terrorized and/or out of his mind.

Unfortunately, the last 45 or so minutes goes off the rails. Much of the film’s last segment is shot in the dark with a lot of screaming and running around. This is supposed to be chilling, but quickly begins to have the same effect as listening to annoyingly noisy adolescents. An intentional ambiguity about whether something truly paranormal is occurring is maintained, though this pose is lamed when the film throws out a few bargain basement, failed effects as red meat for horror fans.

Then there are the moments of supreme absurdity. At one point, a glass and a newspaper become a kind of makeshift Ouija board and together create the silliest and least frightening horror effect I’ve seen in a contemporary film. The ending is a long, dark , irritatingly loud, barely visible, series of events with the three principals locked in a room with one another. It features a conclusion that attempts to be both shocking and somewhat open-ended. Most viewers will simply roll their eyes at the effort. We’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it done better before.

One odd point about how this film is how it has been advertised and discussed. A number of on-line previews suggest that The Possession of David O’Reilly was done in documentary style though this is not exactly the case. If you are truly tired of the found footage phenomenon in horror, this film manages to use elements of it (there is a digital camera running the whole time and certain elements of a documentary aesthetic are present) while employing the traditional direction and cinematography of a feature film. Although this film has severe limitations, it is in no sense a Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield rip-off.

This IFC DVD release is stripped down with no featurettes, “Making of” material or even commentary. Its doubtful the film will interest you enough to want to see any and it also appears that even cast and crew didn’t really want to talk about it. Fair enough.

Fans of this sub-genre of horror will be intrigued by The Possession of David O’Reilly and enjoy its atmospheric opening act. Everyone else, including most horror fans, should probably stay away from this disappointing possession drama.

The Possession of David O'Reilly


We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media


Call for Essays on Topics in Culture; Present, Past and the Speculative Future

// Announcements

"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…

READ the article