The seven stages of grief don’t allow for the sort of madness afflicting the title character in “The Possession of Michael King,” who responds to his wife’s tragic death by inviting demonic spirits to enter his body and shooting an ill-advised documentary about his experience. It’s a wacky premise for this otherwise woefully cliche-ridden, conceptually wobbly indie thriller, the latest of many shoddy attempts to mine a found-footage conceit for grisly supernatural shocks. Nowhere near as rigorous as the “Paranormal Activity” movies it superficially resembles, writer-director David Jung’s increasingly unpleasant, rarely frightening debut feature won’t possess screens for long.
As Michael (Shane Johnson, impressively committed) informs us at the outset, he’s an atheist, a condition that movies like this exist to rectify. By the next scene, his wife (Cara Pifko) is dead, partly due to advice she received from a psychic (Dale Dickey, seen too briefly), and Michael has waged a bitter one-man war on all religion, superstition and belief in the paranormal. Oddly, his campaign entails dabbling in the dark arts, participating in satanic rituals and attempting to summon the most diabolical forces known to man — all of which he captures on camera, in hopes that the demons’ non-activity will definitively disprove the existence of either God or the Devil. To say that his plan backfires would be an understatement, and understatement has no place in this silly, dunderheaded movie.
The kooky early scenes in which Michael interviews necromancers and demonologists, submitting his body and soul to their most outlandish suggestions, afford the story’s most intriguingly offbeat moments. But things go to hell pretty quickly, and not in a good way, as Michael begins to manifest every symptom of possession in the horror playbook: His eyes turn bloodshot; his mood, temper and hygiene decline precipitously; bugs start crawling all over his body; and he begins terrorizing his young daughter (Ella Anderson), who of course exists for the express purpose of being terrorized. Needless to say, don’t get too attached to the family dog.
That Jung and his collaborators haven’t found any new angles to explore in this endlessly overworked religio-horror claptrap would matter far less if they had a firmer grasp of form and technique. But unlike the recent and far more effective found-footage thriller “Afflicted,” “The Possession of Michael King” gains virtually nothing from mimicking the cheap, murky look and jumpy syntax of an underfunded documentary. That Michael chooses to keep the camera running when he’s in the full throes of a massive spiritual-psychological meltdown makes about as much sense as some of the editing and lensing choices, as the film keeps shifting between handheld shakycam and coolly composed master shots. Still, the special-effects work, especially when Michael starts vomiting blood and carving pentagrams into his chest, is impressively nauseating.