– Summary –
Director : Ole Bornedal
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Natasha Calis, Kyra Sedgewick, Madison Davenport, Grant Show, Matishayu, Quinn Lord, Jay Brazeau, Brenda Crichlow, Ella Wade.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: A young girl is possessed by a Jewish demon – a dybbuk – with her father the only one believing enough to try and save her.
What we think : Moody, atmospheric religious thriller is supposedly based on true events, although whether the end product is in any way remotely connected or legitimate is only known to scripter Juliet Snowden. The cast perform adequately – Calis is good as the creepy possessed girl – and Bornedal’s direction is smooth without being obsequious, and the end result is an altogether puzzling mix of frights, poppycock genre cliche and Shyamalan-esque creepiness that oozes from almost every frame. Echoes of The Exorcist abound as the film progresses, which probably hinders proceedings more than it ever helps.
Hollywood has long mined the depths of religious iconography for its monsters, and The Possession slots into that category with ease. It’s hard to make a film about someone being possessed by a demon without calling up the iconic imagery of The Exorcist, mainly because that seminal film has led the charge for film-makers ever since with its foundational style and genre-establishing story points. Every film of similar ilk since owes its creepy, scary skin-tingles to The Exorcist’s blistering freakishness and oddity, The Possession perhaps more than any other in recent memory. The stories are eerily similar, at least in terms of broad-brush script elements, although the script and the direction do a lot to overcome the potential obviousness of what may or may not happen, to develop characters which feel more real than those of other recent films of this type, and to deliver some genuine chills. Sure, the film is mired in the shadows of The Exorcist’s enormous legacy, but for what it’s worth, this Exorcist-lite feature does a good job with the archetypes it’s forced to present.
Supposedly based on a true story (there’s a fair chance there’s more embellishment than actual truth to this film) The Possession sees strange events take hold of the Brenek family. Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his ex-wife Stephenie (Kyra Sedgewick) have finalized their divorce, and are in the midst of separating. Their two young children, Emily (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport) spend the week with their mother, and the weekends with their father. Stephenie is currently dating Brett (Grant Show), a dental surgeon who appears to be more a family man than basketball coach Clyde. After stopping off at a garage sale to purchase some items, Emily becomes obsessed by a strange wooden box she acquires, so much so that her behavior begins to change. Clyde suspects something is going on when strange supernatural events take place – moths infesting their bathroom, Em beginning to behave oddly – but Stephenie accuses Clyde of trying to drive a wedge between them. However, once Clyde uncovers the truth behind the mysterious box, that it is a container for a demon known by the Jewish faith as a dybbuk, and that demon has taken over his daughters body, the race is on to exorcise it before his daughter is destroyed by the creature’s evil. Clyde meets Hasidic Jew Tzadok (Matishayu), who agrees to perform the exorcism – deep in the bowels of a hospital the battle begins for the soul of young Emily.
The Possession is a stylishly made film. In a departure for a modern horror film, there’s a noticeable lack of gore and blood (although where required, blood does appear), and the film seems to be more… leisurely paced than one might expect for a post-millennial fright-fest. Director Ole Bornedal appears to have tried to make a film that’s intelligent instead of pure scares, and to a large degree he’s succeeded, although the inherent limitations of the genre do overpower the film during its frenzied, often skittish finale. Intelligent plotting and character development will only get you so far until the demon itself must manifest and everything becomes a blur of flickering fluorescent lights, yelling priests exhorting the demon to leave, and eyeballs rolling in ones skull like a Magic 8-Ball. The films conventional structure, and expected body-contorting plotline, runs about as true as a yardstick, never really deviating from anything we’ve already seen before – I mentioned that this film follows the basing narrative arc of The Exorcist, a film which haunts The Possession’s rather generic third act, including the obligatory religious figure (Tzadok, the Jew), the disbelieving (then believing) mother, the sibling with no clue, and of course, terrible power supply and electrical failures whenever the low frequency effects come into play. You know it’s gone to hell when the main character stumbles into the hospital morgue with only his cellphone for lighting…. What begins as a genuinely disturbing and creepy possession film, held together thanks to the conviction of lead actor Morgan, falls apart at the end, but on the whole is solid enough to warrant at least one viewing.
The Possession’s visual style is replete with nuance and subtext – most of it quite obvious, some of it not so much – and director Bornedal delivers some effective chills and scares early on. Primarily due to sound design and editing, the film’s tension and slow-burn ratcheting up of the demonic interference grabs hold of you early on, and for large portions of the film doesn’t let up. It’s not slam-bang stuff, this film; instead, Bornedal goes the restrained route favored by directors such as M Night Shyamalan – to the point where I think The Possession owes a lot to the Sixth Sense helmer, it has so much of his flavoring in it. Bornedal holds the camera when required, refusing to cut for the sake of cutting, relying on the power of his sound mixers and the actors on the screen to carry the scares and chills to the audience. It’s a refreshing method, to be honest, and I appreciated the intelligence with which he treated me as a viewer not to “trick” me into jumping just for cheap thrills.
The cast do their best, but aren’t really given a huge amount to do except scowl, tremble and in the end, scream a lot. Jeffrey Dean Morgan holds the film together with a grudgingly subtle performance as Clyde, although at times you can see him trying to find his way through the religious gobbledygook to a sense of character he can understand. Kyra Sedgewick’s Stephenie is fairly generic as the stock-standard ex-wife, who despises what her family has become, doesn’t believe Clyde, and can’t understand what the hell is happening (until the end, anyway). Best performance of the film comes from Natasha Calis, who plays the possessed daughter – when she’s not writhing and screaming obscenities (doesn’t happen much, really) at her mother and father, Em’s a typical teenage girl, but Calis gives her a vulnerability which gives us empathy to her plight. Calis’s on-screen sister, played by Madison Davenport, is reduced to third-stringer by the time the exorcism starts to happen, leaving any and all of her previous character development for naught at the closing credits. Alternative musician Matishayu is restrained and thoughtful as the exorcise-er, Tzadok.
While it might feel like a been-there, done-that effort, there’s a lot to enjoy about The Possession if you like this kind of film. There’s a sense of impending doom about it all, as if you can feel the dread, the horror and the terror about to descend; it’s only a matter of time, really, before the flickering lights, the creaking doors and the stumbling-around-in-the-darkness-with-a-mobile-phone-as-a-torch routine kicks in: by the time this all happens, I was invested in the plight of these characters and found myself caring what happened to them. There’s an underdeveloped faith theme running through the latter half of the film, where Clyde tries to sacrifice his safety to get the dybbuk out of Emily, but it comes from nowhere and seems almost an afterthought. There’s also a complete lack of that spine-twisting physical deformity for the majority of the film – it opens with a scene like this, and the closing moments do have some weird stuff going on – that’s equally refreshing for this jaded reviewer, and although the final third does go where everyone else has gone before, the goodwill of the opening half of the film propels you along, almost uncaring, by that point.
It might not be the most original film of its kind, and there’s a fatal lack of surprise towards the end where its sorely needed, and the characters do slide into rote generics more often than not, but the creepy, eerie nature of demonic possession has rarely been as well handled in the last ten years as it is here. Some might find the lack of pace in the film annoying, but I thought it built up the horror of the scenario with a great sense of showmanship. The Possession isn’t the scariest film ever made, and it owes a lot to several other films of its kind for much of its imagery and subtelty, but for a non-gimmicky journey into the depths of the borderline eerie, The Possession will deliver some decent scares and have your skin crawling enough to keep you entertained.