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Movie Review: The Possession (2012)
Director: Ole Bornedal
Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Natasha Calis, Grant Snow, Matisyahu, Madison Davenport
After purchasing a mysterious wooden box at a yard sale, young Emily Brennek (Natasha Calis) begins behaving differently. She becomes incredibly possessive of the wooden box, so much so that she violently attacks a young boy at her school who managed to get a hold of it; she begins stuffing her mouth with pancakes at a super fast rate; her grades begin to decline; and she becomes more distant and angry with her divorced father Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). As it turns out, the box contains an evil force called a Dybbuk, a demon that will possess any young soul unfortunate enough to free it from its prison. Inspired by a 2004 article published in the Los Angeles Times.
What's Good About the Movie?:
Horror movies usually become more engaging when they introduce to us characters we can believe in. Lately, many horror films stress special-effects and buckets of gore over anything of substance, so when we finally get one that goes against the unfortunate norm, it feels like something of a breath of fresh air. The Possession is such a horror film. Although it opens up with a violent prologue showing what happened to the box's previous owner, the first thirty minutes of the film are spent developing the family at the heart of the story, and screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White do such a successful job with it that it makes it all the more engaging when the horror movie elements kick into gear.
The movie opens with Clyde, who coaches basketball for a University in Upstate New York, picking up his two daughters Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Emily from his estranged ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) for his weekend visit. Clyde and Stephanie try their hardest to remain civil for the sake of their children, even after Clyde grows a little irate when he finds out that Stephanie's new orthodontist boyfriend Brett (Grant Show) has been spending an inordinate amount of time in his old home. “He hasn't moved in yet, has he?” he asks her. Morgan and Sedgwick subtly hint at immense tension boiling beneath the surface without resorting to showy histrionics. They keep the proceedings grounded in reality, and even share one touching scene where they watch an old video together on Stephanie's computer, and hint that there still may be some love left between them.
The two young girls Madison Davenport and Natasha Calis are equally as strong in their roles. Davenport may be playing a stereotypical Fussy Teenager, but she makes the role her own, and has a good scene where she tries giving Em advice about coping with their parent's divorce. But it is Calis who is made to carry much of the film, and she proves more than capable of doing so. She manages to create her character into a lovable little kid in the earlier scenes (the scene she shares Morgan, where they both talk about their day by making shadow puppets on the ceiling, is quite touching), and manages to be quite chilling once the evil starts to take over her (and is it me, or does she resemble Chloe Grace Moretz's evil twin when she finally becomes pasty faced and zombie like?) Calis commits heartedly to her role, and engages us from the beginning to the unfortunately lame end (more on that in the next section).
The direction by Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal is pretty solid for most of the time. Along with ace cinematographer Dan Lausten (who also photographed Silent Hill) and production designer Rachel O'Toole, Bornedal creates an ominous atmosphere, filled with bleak, desaturated colors, that is chillingly effective (this is especially true of the scene where Emily searches for her box in a deserted parking lot). Many of the film's most effective thrills are bereft of special-effects (there is one shot of Emily lit under the red glow of an EXIT sign that is quite creepy), and even when the film uses special-effects, it's mostly to disturbing good use (one scene has a choking Emily flash a light down her throat, and she spots two fingers poking out of her esophagus.) The Possession may not necessarily be “scary,” but it is creepy enough to satisfy horror movie buffs.
And special mention must be made of the way the movie treats its theology. Unlike most films of the this genre, which usually focus on demonic possession from the Catholic Church's point of view, The Possession approaches its subject matter from the point of view of the Jewish faith. That the movie avoids broad stereotypes and treats the religion with an air of respect is something to be commended. The year's other demonic possession film, a Catholic one, was the beyond atrocious The Devil Inside, and well over half that film was spent attacking and insulting the Catholic faith. The Possession is not so childish. It takes its theology seriously instead of exploiting it for cheap thrills.
What's Bad About the Movie?:
Howard Hawks noted that what constitutes a good movie are “Three good scenes and no bad ones.” The Possession has more than a few good scenes, and two really bad ones. I suppose that still makes it pretty good.
The first bad scene comes after Emily has the box confiscated by her teachers after she attacks her fellow class mate for trying to take it. Her math teacher has it in her classroom while she's grading papers in the dead of night. She begins hearing whispering voices. Suddenly, a strange wind blows, the teacher starts bleeding from the eyes, and is mercilessly tossed violently around the room by an unseen force before being hurled out of a window. The scene is not at all scary and plays out like something in a bad slasher movie. Nothing about it works, and when it ends, the only reasonable response is to roll your eyes at it.
The second bad scene is, as you may have heard, the climax. So many things go wrong during this portion of the film that I don't even know where to begin. Emily is rushed to the hospital after suffering from a seizure in her front yard. Clyde, who has been denied his visitation rights after it is assumed he assaulted young Em, travels to a local Hasidic community in New York City in hopes that someone there would agree to perform an exorcism on his daughter. He manages to recruit a young Jewish man named Tzadok ( musician Matisyahu, who is actually really good here) and they rendezvous with Stephanie at the hospital to perform the exorcism.
Now this hospital is a conveniently understaffed place, so that when it is decided to take Em out of her room to another secluded location, no doctor or nurse can spot them and get in their way. When they finally start the exorcism, things go haywire. Emily escapes and growls at everyone, looking at them with her pale white demon eyes. The lights flicker on and off endlessly. The musical score rises to ear shattering levels. And we actually get a small glimpse of the dybbuk via some dispiritingly bad special-effects. Because the movie is produced by Sam Raimi, the man who brought us Drag Me to Hell, we expect something so over-the-top. But the over-the-top approach trumps the character's emotions, which has been the focus for the bulk of the movie, and should remain so to the end. The climax feels like the antithesis of the movie that proceeded it, and ends things on a whimper.
There are a few other minor issues in the film. Some of it is predictable. When Hannah tells her father that she will be doing a dance performance, and when he promises her that he'll be in the front row, you just know that promise will be broken. I also find it a little curious that Stephanie walks on a kitchen floor, bare foot, covered in broken shards of glass, and doesn't even suffer from a limp. Bruce Willis limped when he had to run across a glass covered floor in the original Die Hard. Not Stephanie. We see Brett tending her feet in the next scene, but the very next day, she's perfectly fine. Maybe she has feet of steel?
The Possession is far from a perfect horror film, yet given what the film does right, it's easy to forgive it for its shortcomings. After suffering through a slew of terrible horror films this year, The Possession feels like a reward for all that suffering. It may not be the greatest reward, but any reward is better than no reward at all, and I'm willing to take what I can get. The Possession is a good horror film and I enjoyed it.
Final Grade: *** (out of ****)