Judging from the local reviews, I guess it's safe to say I'm the official American apologist for Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal (I loved 1997's Nightwatch, and thought his freaky evil E.T. follow-up The Substitute was a hoot), because I'm giving The Possession a big, fat, ripe, red, completely unapologetic Fresh Tomato.
Now, let's bring things down a notch or two when I let you in on a few un-fun facts: Sam Raimi's name is all over this movie, but that's about it. If you're expecting his trademark gore and humor mash-up, you'll be disappointed. The screenwriters are Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, who brought us (also S.R. -produced) bland Boogeyman and Nic Cage's dumb Knowing. Star Jeffrey Dean Morgan hasn't made the greatest role choices lately (though I didn't hate his Hammer bomb The Resident, he was also in the lackluster Texas Killing Fields, plus Jonah Hex). And guess what? The Possession is rated PG-13, which is an automatic turnoff for many horror fans.
The Possession's plot, beats, and resolution are absolutely nothing new. Here's the lowdown: An evil box (hello, Hellraiser!) is purchased at a rummage (hey, Yard Sale!) containing a dybbuk (hi, Unborn!), and soon all hell breaks loose (well-met, The Gate!) in a creepy unfinished subdivision (well, if it isn't you, The Apparition!), where a pre-teen girl runs afoul of a not-so-imaginary friend (wassup, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark!).
And so it goes. This demon-containing puzzle box is unpuzzled and pretty soon our little heroine, Emily (Natasha Calis), is possessed. When all is said and done, she's got to be exorcised by a Jewish man of the cloth — played by the Hasidic rap artist Matisyahu (and who's much better-suited to the role than poor Gary Oldman was). Unlike The Exorcist, it's never made clear just how much the religious faith of the vexed individual is, when it comes to importance. The dybbuk is a Kosher demon, I suppose (recently, it was given the Coen Bros. existential treatment in their black comedy, A Serious Man), but it seems to be an equal-opportunity soul-snatcher. (Innocence, however, is key.)
There's a little back-story given on the box (shown in the attention-getting opening sequence), but fortunately not too much of the so-called "true story" is jammed down the throat (though I did read an intriguing article about the object of dire bad luck in The Los Angeles Times a number of years ago).
What I really like about The Possession is, as I alluded earlier, the director's very distinctive style. I also enjoyed the acting and the casting. I've never seen any of Calis's work before, but she was excellent as the girl who knows something awful is inhabiting her body (an MRI scene is particularly effective!) but cannot stop it. Morgan has a wonderful, warm, rumpled quality as the concerned but powerless father, and Kyra Sedgwick is perfect as the brittle, unbelieving, ball-busting and yet somehow likeable granola mom and ex-wife. There's a lot about the family dynamic here — on the periphery are Em's big sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) and mom's too-comfortable new boyfriend, Brett (Grant Show) — which I liked. In some ways, The Possession reminded me of a 1970s haunted horror film. What's more, it looks tremendously good; not only due to the cinematography, but the locations and set design are terrific, too.
When it comes to scares, I have to admit: there were a couple of times when even jaded moi tensed up. (Hastening to add: I wasn't ever scared, but then that's a super-rarity for an old horror hand like myself.) Suspenseful moments are well-eked, and I do believe that those faint of heart might actually enjoy a chill of fright. There are several scenes in the film that play with subtlety and big boo scares employing equal aplomb.
Is The Possession destined to be a classic? Probably not. But it's well worth a few bucks to see on the big screen, and is certainly one of the better hellish-havoc flicks I've seen in some time.
= = =
Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson