-- Timothy Dalton as Father William Bowden, Possessed
Close to thirty years have passed since The Exorcist first hit theaters on December 26th, 1973. It almost immediately gained a reputation as one of the most terrifying films ever produced, a distinction it enjoys to this day. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Exorcist is among the all-time top box office champs. Its initial release coupled with 2000's The Version You've Never Seen brought in just under $400 million worldwide, and that's not factoring in the $100 million-plus generated by rentals and video sales. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film and the 1971 novel that inspired it was that The Exorcist was reported to have been based on an actual case in Mt. Rainier. These events, certainly helped in no small part by the extraordinary financial success of The Exorcist, has been documented several times in the past ten years alone, including the video In The Grip Of Evil, a revealing exposé in Strange Magazine, and the 1993 book Possessed. The latter spawned a movie produced for Showtime Television that debuted in October 2000 and has recently been given this release on DVD.
Timothy Dalton, who should get an Oscar and beat Sean Connery over the head with it, stars as Father William Bowden, a temperamental priest who's dealing with demons aside from those possessing little kids. An alcoholic plagued by nightmares of his stint in World War II, Bowden is soon called upon to help the Mannheims, a local family whose son Robbie appears to be deeply troubled. Robbie is, as you could probably guess from the title, possessed, and this Mannheim Steamroller threatens to plow down Robbie's abusive father, his meek mother, and every priest within arm's reach in St. Louis. It's up to Bowden and his Godfearing gang to lay the smackdown on the demon possessing young Robbie. So, yeah, the lengthy exorcism process begins, and wackiness inevitably ensues. Part of me feels obligated to go into a little more detail, but you've all seen The Exorcist, right?
Comparisons to The Exorcist are inevitable, and hell, that's the sixth reference I've made to the film in the space of a couple of paragraphs. I rather doubt it'll come as much of a surprise to anyone that Possessed cowers embarrassingly in the shadow of its legendary big brother. Possessed lacks the talented cast, the production values, and the excellent dialogue of The Exorcist. As an example, here are two of Bowden's lines from the final climatic exorcism sequence: "Oooooh, I'm so scared!" "Fasten your seatbelt because it's going to be a bumpy ride." Right. Possessed was written and directed by Steven E. de Souza, who you might remember from my less-than-enthusiastic review of Return Of Captain Invincible some weeks back. Dalton, whose post-Bond résumé largely consists of works (I hesitate to call them films) like The Beautician And The Beast, Saltwater Moose, Time Share, and American Outlaws, hams it up to previously unfathomable levels. The porcine performance becomes exponentially exaggerated with each passing scene, and by the end, I couldn't resist from laughing repeatedly. Even if such trite elements as alcoholism and a sorely out-of-place race relations scene have some basis in reality, they come across as weak attempts at characterization for Bowden. Dalton's co-star, Jonathan Malen, doesn't fare much better as Robbie. Regan MacNeil was extremely sympathetic in the early moments of The Exorcist, and even though I was well aware of her impending fate, I couldn't help but feel for Regan and her mother. The same can't be said for Malen, whose character I wanted to be dragged into Hell...or any place far, far away from my home theater. Robbie may spout off excessive profanity and let loose with the bodily fluids much in the same way Regan did years earlier, but he's unable to generate any fear or tension. Possessed may have been more successful had it downplayed the hyperexaggerated supernatural elements and leaving Robbie as more of a disturbed child. Malen's performance could've remained unchanged, and the ambiguity of the possession may have generated some moderate interest on my part. It's a shame that Possessed opted to rehash the events in Maryland in 1949 and give them a faux-Exorcist spin. This could've been an captivating reinterpretation of the same basic source material, but Possessed winds up as nothing more but an uninspired possession flick.
Video: Despite being listed as full-frame seemingly everywhere, Possessed is indeed enhanced for widescreen televisions, presented at an aspect ratio somewhere in the vicinity of 1.78:1. Though the camera has a tendency to go out of focus from time to time, hardly the fault of the transfer, the image is otherwise crisp throughout. Colors are rich and well-saturated, particularly the striking shade of Robbie's red hair. Aside from a handful of specks, there's little of concern. Contrast and black levels aren't timid about flexing their muscles, contributing to the image's high level of detail. The only real complaint of any note would be the occasional breakup in the shadows of the Mannheim's staircase, but I didn't spot that sort of messiness elsewhere.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix starts off impressively enough, dumping Timothy Dalton squarely in the middle of war-torn Europe. Audio booms from every channel, and the constant thumping from my subwoofer in these early minutes had me settling into my couch for a couple of hours of sonic bliss. This doesn't last long though, perhaps by design. In far too many of my reviews, I've rattled off something to the effect of "surround use is limited almost entirely to ambiance and reinforcing the score". That doesn't apply here, as there are lengthy stretches where the rears are completely silent. Even when the score is roaring from the front speakers, there are several instances where there is not so much as the faintest sqwak from the surrounds. A couple of times, I physically picked up one of the rear speakers and put it to my ear, just to verify. In a way, this might be to Possessed's benefit, as those demonic scenes when the surrounds do burst with activity seem all the more effective. There are also a pair of stereo surround tracks that apparently are intended to be selected from the 'Special Features' menu, for whatever reason.
Supplements: The only extra of note is a six minute interview with Father Halloran, who was witness to the reported exorcism. The same audio annoyingly lurches from very speaker, in the thrice-damned Rhin-O-Phonic style. The other supplements are nothing beyond the usual, including filmographies, trailers for other Showtime titles, and a web link.
Conclusion: Though Possessed starts off reasonably well, it's taken a complete 180° turn by the time the last reel rolls around. Possessed might make for a pleasant enough diversion the next time it pops up on Showtime HDTV, but there's nothing about this film that warrants its $25 list price.