THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The Possession is yet another instance of a bad title obscuring the very thing that's interesting about a movie. Originally scheduled for release last October under the title Dybbuk Box, the film is now coming out with a moniker that could just as easily have been given to any of the dozen other pictures about young girls getting possessed by demons. While not entirely successful, The Possession is certainly more interesting than many entries in this genre because it centers around an unusual and creepy bit of Jewish folklore. A Dybbuk box is said to trap a dislocated spirit. The box we see here naturally gets opened, resulting in all hell breaking loose.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Clyde Brenek, a divorced basketball coach trying to amicably handle custody issues with ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgewick) for the sake of their two daughters. During one of the weekends Clyde has the girls, they stop at a yard sale. Youngest daughter Em (Natasha Calis) is drawn to an ornate wooden box she finds there. Clyde buys it for her, and soon afterward, the girl starts exhibiting some troubling behavior, including outbursts of violence. Although Em hides it from everyone, she also feels that there is something inside of her; the way her eyeballs keep rolling in different directions is just one clue. After figuring out that his little girl is being taken over by an evil entity, Clyde turns to a Jewish scholar named Tzadok (played by rapper Matisyahu) to help him stage an exorcism.
Movies about demonic possession usually revolve around Catholics, and contain somber priests, looming shots of crucifixes, and Gregorian chants on the soundtrack. The Possession thankfully revolves around a different religion, thereby circumventing those weary cliches. It also contains a handful of highly original shock scenes, the most notable being a scene in which Em finds something troubling inside her throat. The eyeball rolling and skin crawling she experiences are equally unnerving, and one sequence will forever change the way you look at an MRI. For the big finale, director Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch) uses a strobing effect so that you only see flashes of horrible stuff. I loved all of it.
I also loved the performance from Natasha Calis, who avoids the blandness that typically befalls cinematic victims of demonic takeover. She brings real emotion to the character, who is terrified by what's happening to her own body. The actress is also stunningly convincing in scenes that require her to morph into Something Else. Even though aided by CGI, Calis gets the physicality just right.
Some delightfully freaky stuff happens here, but ultimately the storytelling in The Possession is a bit too conventional. Act one, which introduces us to the characters and establishes the broken family dynamics, is perfunctory. The film would have benefited from not just giving us the shorthand version, but actually delving into the domestic situation more. A lot of the scare beats are predictable too. You can sense when something is going to happen, so there's not a lot of mounting suspense. Horror works best when you don't feel the scare beats coming. A few moments even border on being unintentionally funny, such as when a group of serious-looking Jewish elders ask Clyde where he got the cursed box, and he replies, “I bought it at a yard sale.”
I'm really of two minds about The Possession. It is a little different than most chillers of this variety, and when it presents you with some seriously messed-up imagery, it packs quite a punch. But it also adheres too closely to the demonic activity template, never quite having the nerve to shatter it. I wish the film had been more far-out and insane than it actually is. Better than you'd expect but not as good as it could have been, The Possession is an average film that contains a few undeniably great moments.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Possession is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.
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