Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 92 minutes
Age Appropriate for: 13+. Shot in a very dark and gloomy way, with the possessed girl contorting her body into gross positions; nightmarish scenes coming to life (such as swarms of insects); and a variety of violence, including the possessed attacking others, beating, stabbing, and the demon inflicting its pain upon her. Much like any other exorcism or possession movie, but this could very easily be overwhelming for younger teens.
Jewish folklore gets its chance in the horror-movie spotlight with ‘The Possession,’ yet another scarefest supposedly based on true events. But this spin on the evil dybbuk tale doesn’t offer much originality, especially in comparison with ‘The Exorcist,’ still the best movie about innocent little girls gone bad.
By Roxana Hadadi
Hollywood does love films about possession, doesn’t it? Since “The Exorcist” basically defined that subset of the horror movie genre back in 1973, movies about crafty demons trying to invade the human world come along at a fast clip, most recently including “The Rite.”
And, of course, none of them have even come close to the terror of that original—including “The Possession,” which puts a Jewish spin on the customary Catholic tale but doesn’t add much else.
Priests and possessions go together fairly well in film (“The Rite,” of course, starred Anthony Hopkins as a priest who actually was possessed), but “The Possession” introduces audiences to the dybbuk, an evil spirit out of Jewish folklore. The dybbuk re-entered popular consciousness about 10 years ago when a man claimed to have bought a box with a dybbuk in it from eBay; after opening it, he’s claimed to have been plagued by illness, misfortune, and death. From that dybbuk box tale comes “The Possession,” which focuses on a father who buys a similar box for his daughter, and then she ends up evil and demonic. Whoops!
Malevolent children in cinema, however, are no new thing, and “The Possession” suffers because it feeds us the same plot tropes we’ve seen so many times before: parents seeking out religious guidance, the victim empowered with super-strength and other shocking abilities; typically “scary” animals appearing mysteriously. Director Ole Bornedal and writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White are recycling too much here, especially disappointing considering that horror-movie icon Sam Raimi served as producer.
“The Possession” begins with something ominous: an older woman attempting to destroy this mysterious box, which fights back and causes her a pretty impressive amount of bodily harm (including a partially melted face). The woman’s hammer can’t stand up to the whispers and mutters coming from the box, and she ends up broken and battered.
The focus then changes to young girl Emily Brenek (Natasha Calis), nicknamed Em and the daughter of recently divorced Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, of “The Losers,” “Jonah Hex,” “Watchmen,” and “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding”) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick, of “Man on a Ledge”) and little sister of teenager Hannah (Madison Davenport). Stephanie has already moved on with new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show), but Clyde, who recently bought a house out in the wilderness that displeases attention-seeking Hannah but infatuates nature-loving Em, is focusing on his two daughters, so eager to please them that he buys Em a seemingly harmless wooden box at a yard sale. Neither of them know the markings on it are Hebrew, and after Em opens it and starts acting strangely, everyone just attributes her unexpected acting out to Clyde’s and Stephanie’s divorce. No one takes a look at her surly demeanor, insistence on taking the box everywhere, abuse toward her teacher, and greasy, gross new hairdo and thinks, “Oh, Em, clearly you must be possessed!”
But possessed she is, causing Clyde to follow any lead possible to bring his daughter back to normal. Resisting Stephanie’s skepticism and thoughts that Em’s strangeness must have a medical cause, Clyde instead turns to the Internet, college professors, and eventually the Jewish community for information, traveling to Brooklyn to beg someone to perform an exorcism on Em. It’s in the orthodox Jewish neighborhood Borough Park that he meets Tzadok (Hasidic rapper Matisyahu), a rabbi’s son who agrees to help Em. Aided with some technology that can determine if an entity is really inside the girl, Tzadok and Clyde begin their attempt to save her—a journey that will take them into creepy hospitals, tangle them with Hannah and Stephanie, and pit the pair against the dastardly being who has set up shop in Em’s mind and body.
“The Possession” can’t be knocked for its acting, since Morgan is always so steady and committed in everything he does (his physicality works well in the role of a college basketball coach, and also subtly demonstrates how little even a big hulking man like him can do when faced against something supernatural) and Calis is often appropriately creepy, staring out from under a veil of tangled hair and dark eyeliner and blinking back tears. The shot of a CGI-created presence inside her, with fingers creeping up the back of her throat, is appropriately scary. And there are also some nice narrative links between the beginning of the film and its later scenes, like when Em opens the dybbuk box, finds dead moths inside, and then ends up having similar moths fly out of her mouth afterward.
But that consistency isn’t always present, and what don’t work are the film’s vagueries, like what the dybbuk actually wants and whether it’s a ghoul, demon, or ghost. What’s clear is that Em’s condition is supposed to be an allegory for the impact of divorce on a young child, but that allusion doesn’t fully work in this context. And too repetitive overall are Em speaking in a guttural, masculine voice, or disappearing into dark alleys and rooms while being chased by those who want to save her, or Bornedal filling the film with random bursts of screechy piano.
Ultimately, “The Possession” never builds the right kind of creative atmosphere, always sticking too close to common horror tropes. The religion here may be different, but the clichés? Those haven’t changed.