Written by: Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Directed by: Ole Bornedal
Starring: Natasha Calis, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Fear the demon that doesn't fear god.
Itís almost impossible to regard a movie like The Possession and not see The Exorcist as a reference point, and this Sam Raimi produced haunt doesnít do a whole lot to make you forget about William Friedkinís immortal classic. Not only is its central concept--a young girl is possessed by a malevolent spirit--the same, but it also borrows many of the same beats from that film. About the only true wrinkle is that itís based on Jewish mythology, which all but guarantees that you at least wonít hear the phrase ďthe power of Christ compels you.Ē None of this sounds too flattering, but The Possession actually serves as proof that something doesnít have to be new to be effective, largely because the film remembers what made The Exorcist so effective in the first place: the likeable characters and compelling drama underpinning all the infamous schlock.
Like the The Exorcist, The Possession is centered around a somewhat broken home, as Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) have recently divorced and have agreed to split custody of their daughters, Emily (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport). During a weekend visitation with their father, the girls stumble onto a yard sale, where Emily purchases a mysterious wooden box. In the following days, she begins to exhibit bizarre and violent behavior, and sheís particularly attached to the box, which ends up housing a dybbuk thatís trying to claim her soul.
Most of the usual possession tics show up--the body contortions, the inhuman voices, the degraded innocence, etc. All of this stuff is solidly done, as both the script and director Ole Bornedal smartly find ways to make it hit. There are some truly creepy, small moments, such as the first time Emily slips into the demonís voice, while the more protracted sequences are well-wrought and wrung for maximum suspense. Bornedal has a good eye for all manner of horror, whether it's the subtle, skin-crawling stuff (a sequence involving an MRI has a truly chilling image) or the more overt, jolty moments. He even pushes the PG-13 rating to its limits with some gross, visceral gags; while it understandably never reaches the outrageous heights of The Exorcist, The Possession, actually supposes that a demon has literally nested within the body of a little girl, and itís overtaking her from the inside out both physically and spiritually.
But none of this would really matter if you didnít really care about the girl in question. Natasha Calis puts the film on her back as Emily, a role that requires a stunning range that the actress effortlessly captures. Watching her slip from a radiant ten year old girl into a dead-eyed, vacuous husk is remarkable; sometimes, the transformation is so complete that it feels like the character is being played by two completely different actresses, as the girlís appearance even changes once her humanity drains out of her. Itís not done in a showy manner, either; instead, she becomes realistically creepy in a way thatís more Bad Seed than The Exorcist, at least until the climax, where the film canít resist going big and bold with the effects-driven bodily transformation. Calisís turn is affecting in a way that pushes The Possession into a realm beyond the genre suggested by its title; whereas a lot of films (see: most of the movies that ripped off The Exorcist) would use Emily as a conduit for a bunch of wicked shit, this film is keenly invested in her plight as a child dealing with the divorce of her parents.
As such, the drama surrounding the fallout from the divorce feels like the main hook here. This is where the film diverges from The Exorcist since Emilyís dad is actually around. Not only that, but heís a genuinely good dad, infused with a warm-hearted decency by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. When placed in the clichť role of the well-meaning dad who isnít always there, Morgan manages to find an important human dimension and nuance to fill it out. Likewise, Sedgwick is playing a character thatíd be reduced to some type of one-note shrew in a lesser script that would paint her as ďthe bad parent.Ē The Possession wisely avoids such a simplistic portrait, and even the older tween daughter is truly likeable instead of being an inhumane twit during the entire ordeal. Borndeal expertly builds up this family before sending it through hell, and the filmís most effective moments involve the dybbukís attempts to exploit their rifts. Emily is its main target, and it practically turns her into a post-divorce poster-child, a girl who suddenly becomes disengaged from life and becomes prone to violent fits, which enables the demon to wreak havoc on the family as a whole.
The other wrinkle is the Jewish angle, but The Possession seems to be a confirmation of mythological synchronicity since it all still feels so familiar despite the differing details. More than anything, it's just a different flavor for this sort of thing; instead of the dour solemnity of Catholic priests, this film features an oddball rabbi (Matisyahu) who brings the same sort of unspoken dignity that Father Merrin brought to The Exorcist. His turn isnít as memorable, of course, but heís another affable character in a thoroughly likeable ensemble that makes the film work better than many films of this ilk.
The Possession certainly isnít without flaws--its climax goes a little too broad, it sometimes misses out on some opportunities to break from the expected path, its final big jolt is telegraphed, and some subplots seem extraneous--but itís a solid addition to this sub-genre, even if it doesnít do a whole lot to revolutionize it. Sometimes, an old story can be well-told again, and this is an example of that. Raimiís Ghost House Pictures label hasnít been the most consistent over the years, but this is one of its best offerings, as The Possession even shows hints at Raimi-style black magic here and there (an opening scene that sees an old woman get physically pummeled by the unseen dybbuk is most notable). Credit must go where itís due, though, to Bornedal, who has crafted a fine film that strives to simply be more than a half-hearted Jewish riff on The Exorcist. Buy it!
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