Mama’s Boy — Possession: Until Death Do You Part (1987)

Matty looks back at a scuzzy, straight-to-video Canuxploiter from Lloyd Simandl and John A. Curtis’ North American Pictures.

In 1979, Czech-born, Canada-based hematologist turned filmmaker Lloyd Simandl got his fingers burnt. Having crafted his debut feature, a ropey erotic drama called Autumn Born, starring doomed Playmate Dorothy Stratten [1], via a mixture of good intentions, remortgaging, and begging and borrowing from friends, Simandl nearly lost everything when he was shafted over by the film’s unscrupulous distributor. Vowing never to make another movie without controlling the distribution of it himself, Simandl spent the next few years “dabbling in exercise videos and commercials, and volunteering as an assistant to a New York film distributor in order to learn the ropes” [2] before taking the plunge and founding North American Pictures in Vancouver with John A. Curtis in 1984.

North American’s inaugural production was another ropey T&A potboiler, Ladies of the Lotus (1987). However, despite this dreary direct-to-video howler veering dangerously close to being unwatchable, Ladies of the Lotus did phenomenal business on cassette, netting Simandl and Curtis a cool half-a-million dollars within a week of release, tripling its $160,000 budget and then some. Those profits were quickly ploughed into North American’s sophomore offering, POSSESSION: UNTIL DEATH DO YOU PART (1987) — a scuzzy Canuxploiter that, though wildly imperfect, should be considered Simandl and Curtis’ first essential outing. 

Truly, Possession is a unique viewing experience. A bizarre potpourri of gothic horror, low-rent slasher cheese, and genuinely disturbing character portrait, Possession tells the story of a mama-obsessed serial killer, Frankie (the sole on-screen appearance of John R. Johnston — now the producer of NBC’s daily lifestyle TV show, California Live), whose botched kidnapping of his latest potential target, Madeline (Sharlene Martin — best known in genre circles as nasty prom queen Tara in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), which, like Possession, was also shot in Vancouver), leads to a cabin-set odyssey of murder and mayhem.

Directed with macabre flair by Simandl and Michael Mazo (who’d go on to become one of North American Pictures’ go-to helmers, co-shepherding Empire of Ash (1988) and Empire of Ash III (1989) with Simandl, and piloting Time Runner (1993), Crackerjack (1994), and Downdraft (1996) solo), Possession begins with a bang as Frankie drags a dead victim along the grounds of his spooky familial mansion and dumps her lifeless corpse in a shallow grave. It’s strong, striking stuff, and both Simandl and Mazo ladle on the morbid imagery during the film’s opening reels. Madeline’s abduction is captured with a squalid, voyeuristic realism, and Possession’s raft of deeply uncomfortable visuals peak with an artful and evocative sequence that juxtaposes the shadows of Frankie’s sprawling homestead with the bright red dress of dear ol’ mammy’s that the bug-eyed loon forces his unwilling plaything to wear.

Cruel, mean, and laced with an icky air of sexual menace that’s augmented by excellent sound design and a relentless synth score (by Rick Kilburn and Tom Lavin), it’s easy to see why Possession never landed on British shores. After all, c. 1987, the fallout of the video nasty furore was still in full swing, and the two similarly themed Oedipal shockers to which Possession owes a debt, Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go in the House (1979) and William Lustig’s Maniac (1980), had already caused the BBFC quite the headache. Mind, if unverifiable internet chatter is to be believed, it wasn’t for lack of trying: rumour has it that Mogul, the UK distributor of North American’s subsequent production and pick-up, Empire of Ash and Lucifer (1987), tried to get Possession past Jimmy Ferman and his scissor-happy pals but were met with a rejection stamp for their troubles.

Even the warbling histrionics of Johnston’s crackpot performance give little respite from the film’s suffocatingly grim tone. Instead, they lay groundwork for the craziness that kicks in at around the twenty-six minute mark, once Frankie attempts to flee a police chase in a rowboat. Blasted by armed 5-0, the dinky wooden vessel explodes (!), the resulting enormous fireball seemingly the point in which Possession flips from a moody and oppressive character piece to an off-kilter carve-’em-up of the most charmingly weird and ludicrous kind.

By any regular metric, Possession’s next two thirds could be charitably described as a hot mess; an hour of Simandl, Mazo, and scripter Lyne J. Grantham (another North American stalwart — Grantham was their in-house accountant) throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. As a regular horror movie it’s a failure. Suspense and mystery are non-existent, and Madeline becomes as indistinguishable as the rest of the squawking and irritating cast that Frankie tracks to the usual woodland holiday home. Without question, Possession loses its edge in that regard; its initial strokes are so creepy and effective that its clumsy plummet into bleak yet uninspired slasher formula leaves you with the distinct impression that Simandl and co. have painted themselves into a corner. And yet, for those who vibe with such lip-smackingly tawdry hack-a-thons as The Mutilator (1984) and Blood Rage (1987), Possession will elicit a similar sort of satisfaction. While Jeff Butterworth’s anemic gore FX pale in comparison to the spectacular carnage orchestrated by Mark Shostrum and Ed French in either of those splatterific classics, respectively, Possession harbours an identical gait; a charismatic and borderline unexplainable ‘what the fuck?!’ quality that’ll stick in your craw if you just strap in and go along for the ride. 

It’s there in the pace-skewering T&A, as Madeline’s vacuous chums parade their bangers for vast swathes of the film’s duration.

It’s there in the elongated passages of giddy homoerotica, Simandl and Mazo fixating on the chiseled chests and thong-split buttocks of a gaggle of male strippers; further cannon fodder presumably added in an attempt to allay the accusations of misogyny that many would likely fire at this defiantly lurid schlock-show.

And it’s there as Nathaniel Massey’s camera matter-of-factly follows Frankie from slaughter to slaughter, the yelping degenerate covered in camo paint and never less than mesmerically watchable as Robertson trundles the eternally pleasing divide between the sublime and the awful.

[1] Stratten was murdered by her estranged husband/manager on 14th August 1980. She was twenty years old.
[2] Actors, Guns & Money – Movie-Maker Lloyd Simandl, from the archives of Velvet Magazine (originally published 1st October 1995), https://www.think.cz/english/movies/lloyd-simandl

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