By Jonathan Holin
Directed by Ole Bornedal
Is it just me or do the titles of horror films seem to be getting more straightforward nowadays? The demon of Insidious was quite insidious indeed, and I can imagine the upcoming film Sinister, by the same team, will have quite a sinister tone as well. The Possession is about, well, a possession, but instead of the usual Christian slant, this film adopts a Jewish one.
The spirit is a dybbuk, a wandering soul from Jewish folklore, which envies the living, as seems to be the general job description of most disembodied entities. Some time ago the dybbuk of The Possession was trapped inside a wooden box, and now waits for an innocent to release it. The box has Hebrew inscriptions on it, a warning for anyone fortunate enough to read Hebrew not to open it. Em (Natasha Calis) has no such luck. She finds it at a garage sale with her father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and soon after he notices Em no longer seems entirely herself.
The Possession has plenty of eerie atmospheric shots and does a good job at building tension early on, but it lacks in big scares, which, to me, is the point of seeing a movie like this. There just isn’t a whole lot of payoff. In one scene, as Jeffrey Dean Morgan reads a prayer above his daughter, the camera closes in and the music heightens, only for the prayer book to be telekinetically launched across the room. It’s clear the audience is supposed to jump at this, but it comes off as more comical than anything else. At least now the father knows.
If there’s another way to look at this film, it’s about family growing apart. Morgan is divorced from his high-strung wife played by Kyra Sedgwick, and their daughters split their time between them. When Morgan says that’s not his daughter anymore, it can be read as the inevitable change children go through in their parents’ eyes. “Where did my sweet little girl go?” is not just a question for fathers of the possessed.
If it seems I’m reading to much into this, it’s because there wasn’t much else to think about while watching The Possession. The acting is good enough, but the characters are hastily drawn and lack any real urgency until the final moments, when all becomes suddenly clear. In one scene Em is inspecting her throat and sees a pale hand reach out from inside of it. Is she concerned? Yes. Does this concern seem to last, or does she tell anyone? No. It’s small things like this that make it hard for the audience to maintain concern as well.
That’s not to say The Possession doesn’t have any real scary moments. It does. It’s just most of them end up falling flat by the end.
To the film’s credit it does a good job of trying to maintain a respect for its Jewish source material, and fans of Matisyahu will recognize him in a late cameo as a Jewish exorcist, with some criticism of his own on the isolationism of the Hasidim. If there’s a message to take away from The Possession it is to take action before it’s too late, especially if somebody’s life is at stake. That might be the only reason I’d recommend watching this film.