The story is typical…sort of: Box meets girl, girl meets box, and supernatural horror ensues.
Director Ole Bornedal’s latest movie, THE POSSESSION walks down an all-too-familiar path in Hollywood horror over the last decade. From movies such as THE BOX to KILL KATIE MALONE, the idea of a “haunted box” has been done often in recent years, and let’s not get started on the pile of exorcism films that have filled video store dollar bins over the better part of the decade. Each one has shown little to no promise for the future of Hollywood horror, with the exceptions of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and THE RITE.
What’s fun about this film is that it plays off of the Jewish belief of the Dibbuk box, in which a dislocated malevolent spirit dwells within an ancient box and can only be released if the box is open. The tale has spread across the internet like wildfire ever since a story in the LA Times told of the Dibbuk box in 2004. The possession of such a cursed relic brings terrible consequences, including everything from coughing up blood to head-to-toe hives overwhelming any poor soul who acquires it. These reportedly true events that have been widely acknowledged at least give this film a little more weight than the typical possession film.
In THE POSSESSION, we meet a family struggling to make peace with the fact that mother, played by Kyra Sedgwick, and father, portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, are recently divorced. The two veteran actors do a great job and no doubt their performances are a big reason this film succeeds where it does. Morgan plays Clyde, a likeable fellow who has trouble balancing his career as a small-college basketball coach with his obligation as a father. Sedgwick is Stephanie, a mother who’s just a tad overprotective, just a little neurotic and already hitting the reset button on her love life by dating an unspectacular putz named Brett (Grant Show). Oldest daughter, Hannah (Madison Davenport) is a solid supporting character.
Then there’s youngest daughter Em (Natasha Calis). Calis delivers a performance as unsettling as any young actor or actress this side of Linda Blair. In fact, there are a few scenes in the film where tinges of Blair’s legendary role as Regan MacNeil practically jump off the screen as Calis brings the hammer down. Whether she’s glaring ominously at a prospective new victim or fighting for her life as she battles the evil spirit within her, this young woman has a bright future ahead of her in cinema. If horror had their own Oscars, Calis is every bit as deserving as any supporting actor this year to garner award attention in this horror junkie’s mind.
When Em finds an ancient box at a yard sale, Clyde doesn’t think twice about buying his youngest daughter anything she wants during his weekend time with the girls. By this point in the film, we already know this box is up to no good. I heard a few people in the theatre wonder out loud why the previous owner simply didn’t destroy the box rather than offer it up on a table of chachkies on a lazy Sunday morning. Like any good story revolving around a haunted artifact, the rule is set in place that one cannot rid themselves of the curse by dumping said evil object — the item must be handed off to another unsuspecting person in order for the curse to be lifted.
When Em’s stubborn persistence pays off and she finally opens the relic late one night, we see a wonderful assortment of ominous items inside, including a tooth and a creepy little doll of some sort. It doesn’t take long for the demon dwelling in the box to start consuming Em slowly but surely. Whether the young girl is jamming utensils in hands or going berserk on a classmate for rifling through her book bag (the snot nosed punk totally deserves the ass whooping Em administers on him), this precious little girl is clearly not herself anymore.
After a terrifying ordeal at his home late one night, Clyde becomes even more separated from his children. He’s left to figure out the mystery of the box all by himself while his ex-wife Stephanie begins to recognize her daughter’s terrifying transformation. By the time Clyde and Stephanie start working together, it’s far too late for any happy ending to occur without a terrifying climax. Just the way we like our horror.
We learn of the Dibbuk mythology in an eerie scene between Clyde and a group of rabbis who basically tell him his daughter is doomed. With nowhere else to turn, Clyde assumes he must conquer the demon on his own until a young rabbi named Tzadok observes his vows and insists on helping the tortured family. In a very cool casting decision, Orthodox reggae and rap artist Matisyahu, who only recently began acting, very capably plays the young holy man. Tzadok is a solid supporting character who is introduced to the audience by singing along to his iPod while waiting for Clyde to meet with him in regards to the Dibbuk box. While other films seem to either invest too much or too little flesh to the role of the exorcist, Matisyahu aces the role with conviction. He is certainly not your traditional rabbi.
Bornedal paces the film wonderfully, allowing it to blossom at its own pace. A solid back story and not relying on scares to drive this vehicle do wonders for the film’s atmosphere. While there are several instances in the film when we see Em dealing with physical transformation at the hands of the demonic spirit, there isn’t much blood, save for a scene that would make any dentist cringe. The effects that are the most unnerving are done practically thereby keeping CGI to a minimum, even during the climactic ending. And when CGI is used, it’s very subtle and exceptionally well done. And this movie’s demon is probably the most frightening looking spirit outside of White-Face in THE EXORCIST.
The characters are believable and the story is well-rounded, with almost as much focus on the fractured family as there is on Em’s fractured soul. I will be adding THE POSSESSION to my collection right alongside those other two aforementioned favorites in this horror theme that is way too (Holy) watered down these days.