‘Ava’s Possessions’ Is a New Spin on Possession Horror

While underdeveloped in character and story, the originality of Ava's Possessions, as well as its decadent visual aesthetic, go a long way towards making it a unique and interesting take on a stale genre.
2016-03-04 (Limited) (VOD)

Genre pictures, insofar as they exist with an established set of generic constraints, are best when they break free from those chains. The goal is not to go against what previous generations have built, but to approach it with new vision, to build. Hollywood’s disappointing lack of compelling horror is due in part to its tendency to exhume the bodies of successful past films ad infinitum until, at last, all that is left is dust.

Audiences excited to see some revolving heads may have been moderately fulfilled by a recent crop of films such as 2011’s The Possession, 2010’s The Last Exorcism, and 2013’s The Last Exorcism 2, but who was at all interested in 2011’s The Rite, a film about Vatican priests performing an exorcism on a woman? Who was interested in 2012’s The Devil Inside, a film about Vatican priests performing an exorcism on a woman? Who was interested in 2015’s The Vatican Tapes, a movie about — well, must it be said?

The greatest asset that Ava’s Possessions wields is its stubborn refusal to blindly adhere to the logic that drives horror in Hollywood; maximizing profit. By dispensing with the established formula of possession films and focusing instead on a woman’s life after she has been exorcised, the film gets that much needed breath of fresh air. Even if it doesn’t always work, its willingness to invent is much appreciated.

The titular character, Ava Dobnik (Louisa Krause) doesn’t have to wait until the end of the film to be free from her demonic squatter; it happens in the first few minutes. Afterwards, the film launches into a gaudy, neon-drenched title sequence that seems to perfectly encapsulate the irreverent, absurd, and stylish tone of the upcoming hour-and-thirty.

Once Ava wakes up, she gets to work rebuilding her now fractured life. As we zip through the story, we get snippets of her antics while possessed. These include having sex with a prostitute, assaulting a man trying to withdraw money from an ATM, and a whole host of transgressions that make adjusting to normalcy an uphill battle. Her only reprieve from a litany of litigious offenses is a mandatory ‘Spirit Possession Anonymous’ support group, where she meets the stoic leader, Tony (Wass Stevens). Tony becomes her guide to readjustment, even as a fellow survivor coaxes her into repossession.

The film is a winking parody of exorcism films, but by no means should it be reduced to that. It functions well, features a good handful of memorable characters, and is visually delightful. Far from the morose banality that characterizes much of modern horror filmmaking, Ava’s Possessions is colorful and expressive, calling to mind the saturated films of Italian horror master Dario Argento. In this case, form influences content, because the style of the film reinforces its witty absurdist humor.

Unfortunately, the film falters in its characters and story. Ava’s wary friends appear in a scene, clearly uncomfortable around her, and then disappear almost completely. Ava tentatively returns to her job at a music label, only to freak out. Her attempts to function normally are compelling in that they mirror real-life experiences, real-life dramas. Mysteries are a dime-a-dozen, and it’s not a requisite that every film be a mopey arthouse drama, but exploiting a great psychological concept should involve delving as deep as possible into its effects on normal events that people can relate to.

More attention to Ava’s recovery and its effects could have helped, but instead the film gives ample time to a strange and not very compelling mystery of “what is this strange bloodstain in my apartment?” Of course, it’s interesting to watch Ava discover what she’s been up to, but it would be more interesting to watch her moving forward. She moves forward, but it seems a subplot compared to the aforementioned mystery. Confronting the past is part of the path towards healing, but being mired in it is detrimental to the film’s character drama and progression.

The soundtrack by Sean Lennon is absolutely wonderful, with crooning, fuzzy guitars reminiscent of David Lynch’s use of the instrumental version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” in Wild at Heart. If one were to look at Ava’s Possessions as a purely formal affair, there’s no doubt that they would be pleased with it’s pastiche of expressive gaudiness.

That being said, Ava’s Possessions makes you want more. It’s a smart, funny film that never quite hits the high marks one expects of it. There’s no doubt that director Jordan Galland has expanded immensely on what an exorcism movie can be about, but the concept isn’t mined as extensively and precisely as it could have been. Still, the fact remains that the horror world needs more movies as original as Ava’s Possessions and preferably, much less sequels.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.