At this point it seems there’s only so much you can do within the exorcism sub-genre. The plots are all basically the same. One person—usually young, sometimes elderly—begins to show signs of weirdness. Nasty things start happening and eventually somebody clues in and calls in an expert to exorcize the demon. Of course, most often these films deal with Christianity. The Catholic imagery of The Exorcist is half the horror. The Possession doesn’t do much new in terms of plot, but where it veers into new territory is the religion at its centre. Enter: Judaism!
The Possession stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as Clyde, a recently divorced father of two. At a yard sale, his daughter, Em, comes across a large wooden box and asks to buy it. Little do they know, the box imprisons a dybbuk, a sort of Jewish demon. Even unopened, the dybbuk in the box can break an old lady’s spine, so opening it is probably a terrible idea. Em opens it. It doesn’t take long for weird things to happen. Bugs appear all over the house. Em becomes despondent and occasionally violent. Clyde eventually figures out that Em is possessed by something and it seems to be coming from that damn wooden box. One meeting with an occult expert and the Hebrew writing on the box becomes clear. It was built to hold a dybbuk and now the dybbuk has possessed Clyde’s daughter. The only people who can help? A small sect of Orthodox Jews from New York City, obviously.
A lot of the fun in The Possession comes from the use of Judaism, though it comes a little late in the film. A scene of old Jewish men raising the hands and walking around in in frustration over the news that a young girl opened the box is more hilarious than disconcerting. That might sounds like a bad thing, but the film clearly wants to be as fun as it is scary.
The film wouldn’t work if it wasn’t at least a little scary, and luckily there are plenty of quality horror sequences. Though directed by Ole Bornedal, it’s pretty clear that this is a Sam Raimi Ghost House production. Just as in Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell or many of his recent efforts as a producer, the scenes of terror are pushed to almost absurd limits, though not as comedic. There isn’t much gore, but between the loud music and suggestive shots, the pain can definitely be felt. One scene of a man having his teeth fall out in a soup of blood is particularly disgusting, as is another in which Em sits in the middle of a swarm of moths. This isn’t a movie about quiet creaks and quick glimpses. The Possession goes for it, full force, audaciously and without restraint.
It’s not a great movie, though. It’s weighed down by a conventional and silly plot involving Clyde’s divorce, as well as a lack of comedy to contrast with the over-the-top horror. The biggest problem, perhaps, is the conventionality of the whole thing. Other than some unique bits of style, which might have been even flashier under Raimi’s direction, and the Jewish angle, the film pretty much goes to all the expected places, right up to the bang of an ending. There’s nothing particularly unexpected, and the film doesn’t ever have the balls to take any majorly clever twists.
Morgan does solid work anchoring the film, and Natasha Calis, who plays Em, is suitably cute and creepy. Kyra Sedgwick plays Clyde’s ex-wife, but her character comes off as unobservant at best; exceedingly dumb at worst. The best character in the film is the young rabbi who agrees to help the family, Tzadok, played by Orthodox Jewish rapper, Matisyahu. He’s a great, off-beat screen presence, and a nice contrast to other religious exorcist characters in similar films. Bornedal ably directs, but his style is often just a little too visually muted. The one great bit of visual direction is a scene in a hospital basement where a dark room is slowly lit up by an exit sign. The red light takes over and adds to the intensity of the moment despite making no physical sense. More moments like this of pure visual gusto might have further softened the blow of the mostly lame script.
A film like The Possession can be somewhat annoying if viewed in the wrong light or in the wrong mood. It doesn’t bring anything seriously new to a well-worn genre. Flatly written and only competently directed, there’s little reason to fear missing out on something special. That said, if you’re waiting for August to just die already, and you want to check out a decent horror film with a little bit of that Sam Raimi balls-to-the-walls attitude, you’ll find that in The Possession. Other than the Jewishness, it’s all been seen before, but when it counts, The Possession doesn’t hold back, and for that it manages to be a fun—if forgettable—little horror flick.