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Arts & Culture

Review: 'The Possession'

A family tries to exorcize a demon from their daughter in "The Posession."
Lionsgate
A family tries to exorcize a demon from their daughter in "The Posession."

Exorcism, Jewish Style

At one time, "The Possession" (opened August 31 throughout San Diego) was more intriguingly named "Dybbuk Box." I wonder how much else got changed along the way in an attempt to make it more marketable.

"The Possession" screened on closing night of FrightFest in London last week. I was lucky enough to attend FrightFest for the first time and was a little embarrassed that the American selections weren't stronger. The best horror at the festival was coming from Spain ("Sleep Tight," "Rec 3: Genesis") and Canada ("American Mary"), although the American studio film "Sinister" did prove a pleasant surprise.

But back to "The Possession." It was produced by Sam Raimi, who like Quentin Tarantino, gets his name plastered all over films he doesn't direct in the hopes that people will be fooled or that his name alone will bring in a crowd. At the helm this time is Denmark's Ole Bornedal. The film is your standard little girl possessed film with the only twist being the dybbuk box that was so stupidly removed from the title. It's almost also removed from the film itself as the story is reduced down to the most familiar elements of a standard possession tale. So you have concerned parents, unknown demonic force, and slow to help religious types. It all goes exactly how you would expect with just a couple nicely crafted minor scares (most of which are in the trailer).

Bornedal (who started his career with the non-vampire "Nightwatch") has a nice sense for the quieter moments. One of the creepier scenes involves the little girl cramming food down her throat and then ordering more, and as she turns to the waitress she add "she's still hungry" in a quiet but gravelly demon voice. But Bornedal can't find anything to make his story unique. It could have been the dybbuk box but whatever potential for originality lay in that detail has been exorcised out. As far as I can recall a dybbuk has only been used in a few films -- the nearly lost 1937 film "The Dybbuk," in a prologue for the Coens' "A Serious Man," and referenced in "The Unborn." So it's a missed opportunity to explore this particular kind of demonic possession and exorcism.

Raimi had more fun with his possession tale, "Drag Me to Hell." At least Raimi spiced up his tale with his particular brand of gross out gore and splatstick (splatter gore and slapstick). Bornedal, on the other hand, has no particular style to enhance his possession tale with. Everything has a nice, slick gloss but nothing proves very memorable or very scary.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the fittingly concerned dad in "The Possession."
Lionsgate
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the fittingly concerned dad in "The Possession."

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is still in search of a film that can tap into his talent. He displayed big screen potential in "Watchman" that no one has yet managed to exploit. The little girls, one possessed and one not, are convincing. Natasha Calis is the possessed Em. She manages to be evil looking while still conveying the little girl trapped inside the possessed body. Madison Davenport is the unpossessed sis who mainly screams. As for Kyra Sedgwick, she's made to look scarier than the dybbuk in some unnecessarily close shots.

The script by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White subjects us to the most clichéd pre-story build up with your standard divorced couple, grating ex, silly new boy friend, troubled kids, blah, blah, blah. "Sinister" suffered from a similar opening but managed to surge past it with a genuinely strong ending. "The Possession," however, ends badly, with characters that just tossed aside with absolutely no mention and a snappy resolution that's all too easy.

"The Possession" (rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences) claims to be based on a true story and references Leslie Gornstein's article "Jinx in a Box." But in the end it only feels true to tired formula and plays like a weak, watered down version of "The Exorcist."

Companion viewing: "The Dybbuk" (1937), "The Exorcist," "Drag Me To Hell"

Here's a brief scene from the restore 1937 film, "The Dybbuk."