Supernatural hijinks ensue in The Possession, which is not just a Jewish version of The Exorcist. (Spoiler alert: It totally is.)
WARNING: GET THEE BEHIND ME, MILD SPOILERS! THE POWER OF FBOTU COMPELS YOU!
Clyde (Jeffery Dean Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (Kyra Sedgwick) are recently divorced, sharing joint custody of their two daughters, teenager Hannah (Madison Davenport) and 10-year-old Emily (Natasha Calis). When Clyde takes his daughters to a yard sale one day, Em is transfixed by an old box covered in Hebrew inscriptions. After Em opens the box, she begins to display strange behavior, everything from starting fights and lashing out at Stephanie’s smarmy new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show) to vomiting up enough moths to open an exhibit at the local zoo. It soon becomes apparent that Em is possessed, specifically by a displaced soul called a dybbuk. With the help of a young Hasidic Jew named Tzadok (Matisyahu, pre-razor), Clyde must rid his daughter of the dybbuk before it consumes her soul and takes up permanent residence.
The press materials for The Possession constantly highlight the fact that it’s “based on a true story.” Then again, the same claim was made about The Amityville Horror, and we all know how that turned out. In this case, there is actually an allegedly haunted dybbuk box that exists somewhere out there (its current owner has it hidden in a secret location). The box (technically a wine cabinet) has become infamous through a series of eBay auctions where each owner claims that mysterious and often unfortunate things have happened to them since they came to own the box. However, it’s unclear whether any of those unfortunate things included making a movie that rips off a dozen other horror films and can’t be bothered to rise above being little more than mildly amusing late-summer leftovers.
Totally not at all like that freaky girl in The Ring.
Although written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White and helmed by Danish director Ole Bornedal, one name on the poster gets all the attention: Sam Raimi. That’s intentional, of course, if slightly dishonest. Raimi has much higher name recognition among horror fans than anybody else involved in the film, but he’s only credited as a producer and not even in an executive capacity. Basically, Raimi made sure the film got made and finished and promoted appropriately, but based on what’s on the screen, it’s clear that he had little input, if any, into the final product. It has none of Raimi’s black humor or savvy, and none the uncomfortable surreality of films like Drag Me To Hell.
It’s difficult to make a truly original horror film, which may be why Bornedal and company don’t even seem like they’re attempting it. The Possession steals liberally from scores of other, usually better, films. Obvious elements of The Ring, Hellraiser, The Grudge and Poltergeist litter the screen like dead moths, but most of the time the film seems like little more than The Exorcist with the serial numbers filed off. It’s not just a find-and-replace Catholicism for Judaism. Em looks like and dresses like Regan MacNeil, the climax includes a number of similar moments and Anton Sanko’s score sounds like little else but a cheap. but passable imitation of Krzysztof Penderecki. The demon antagonists of both films even have similar names, and both are based on actual events whose relationship with the truth is tenuous at best.
And let’s not forget the liberal application of a wind machine.
That being said, Bornedal isn’t trying to make a new classic horror film. He takes himself and his movie very seriously, and it’s clear that he intends the film to be a metaphor for the effects of divorce, but there’s no illusion that this will displace any of the films listed above in the horror movie canon (except possibly The Grudge). He at least has a distinct style that helps the film go down easier. Bornedal is fond of long, slow zooms and pans that cross the line from awkward to downright uncomfortable. He also likes to end scenes very abruptly, and about a beat earlier than we’d expect, helping to build a sense of unease and instability in the audience. It’s one of the most effective uses of jump cuts in a while.
The cast is by and large fine, and to their credit, they’re able to make the most out of a shoddy, remarkably uneven script. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick have a decent chemistry together, even when the relationship between Clyde and Stephanie seems to change every scene based on a roll of the dice. At the very least, they’re highly believable as a couple, and both of them have an earthbound attractiveness that keeps them from being unrealistic and inaccessible. It’s also nice to see Kyra Sedgwick do something that doesn’t involve speaking in a questionably accurate Southern accent.
Sadly, there’s a no-return policy on boxes of Jewish hoodoo.
Likewise, Natasha Calis and Madison Davenport work well as sisters. It’s not just the fact that they look similar enough to be related, but they have similar mannerisms and attitudes, each one filtered through a slightly different experience and age. Davenport seems to be the more talented of the two, so it’s a shame that she gets so little screen time in comparison to Calis. However, in Calis’ defense, the film doesn’t give her much of a chance to move beyond the demon-child cliche. While Em is established early on as remarkably articulate and aware for her age, most of this is forgotten once the dybbuk starts moving in. Oddly enough, one of the best performances comes from Matisyahu, although it’s not a huge stretch for him to play a hip, modern Hasidic Jew. Regardless, he’s confident in the role and is a solid, welcome presence amidst the subtle chaos of the film around him.
The attempted exorcism of the screenplay was less than successful.
The Possession brings nothing new to the horror genre, even if it trades the traditional God-and-Satan duality for a more complex and complicated spiritual background. The origins and motivations of the dybbuk are left vague on purpose to give the film a sense of dread and uncertainty. After all, it’s hard to fight what you can’t identify. However, Bornedal’s atmosphere and the cast’s conviction are undone by a tired, mediocre script that breaks the mood with too many scenes of unintentional hilarity. When the dybbuk turns its attentions on Brett, the moment is supposed to be terrifying, but merely comes off as ridiculously inane. Similarly, The Possession could have been a gripping, exciting take on the demonic possession film, but instead it just feels like a pale imitation of what’s come before. It’s a shame that the film couldn’t have been possessed by the spirit of Sam Raimi. Or even Ted Raimi, for that matter.
Rating: 5 out of 10 / C
There is no JOHNNY M, a frequent FBOTU contributor. There is only Zuul.