‘Darkness lives inside’
The Possession is a 2011 American supernatural horror film directed by Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch) from a screenplay written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, “based on a true story”. It was co-produced by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead). The movie stars Natasha Calis, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Grant Show, Madison Davenport and Matisyahu.
Ole Bornedal stated that he was drawn to The Possession‘s script, having seen it as more of an allegory for divorce than as a true horror film
A newly separated couple Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (Kyra Sedgwick) live in different homes. After Clyde picks up their two children, Emily “Em” (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport), for the weekend, they stop at a yard sale where Em becomes intrigued by an old wooden box that has Hebrew letters engraved on it. Clyde buys the box for Em, and they later find that there seems no way to open it.
That night, Em hears whispering coming from the box. She is able to open it, and finds a tooth, a dead moth, a wooden figurine, and a ring, which she begins to wear. Nw, possessed by a dybbuk, Em becomes solitary, and her behaviour becomes increasingly sinister…
One of the major early movies to depict spirit possession in any serious fashion actually came from Poland, 1937’s The Dybbuk, from Yiddish-language speciality director Michal Waszinski, based on a play by Sholom Ansky that would go on to become one of the standards in Jewish theatre…the takeaway here is that the exorcism horror flick, commonly held to spring from a well of Roman Catholic-steeped religious dogma, has Jewish roots. Which is kind of interesting.
Perhaps more interesting than The Possession, unfortunately. In the early 2000s, American horror studios were casting about for new takes on aged occult material to thrill the teens and exercise/exorcise Hollywood’s newly acquired CGI F/X, the marketplace. Several were claiming to be “based on a true story,” such as The Haunting in Connecticut, An American Haunting, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and The Apparition. The Possession not only dangled the `true story’ come-on before ticket buyers it also revisited the Judaica aspect and the notion of the “dybbuk” again exhumed.
In The Possession, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, doing a nice regular-guy performance, is newly divorced New York dad Clyde, having melancholy visitations with his two daughters when he takes them to a yard sale. Among the $55 worth of purchases is a mysterious antique box with Hebrew inscriptions. Obviously never having seen Hellraiser, Clyde lets his little girl Emily (Natasha Calis) take the artefact.
Very soon Emily starts experiencing mood swings, eerie silences, strange bodily mutations, cruelly manipulative behaviour, talking to invisible entities, shutting herself in the bathroom and putting her fingers down her throat, and outbursts of ferocious violence.
Sounds like a typical American adolescent girl to me – but it’s actually the baleful effect of the crate’s occupant, a dybbuk, or Jewish demon (although in the Ansky play and the folklore from which it derived, such entities are usually the soul of a deceased human who won’t let go).
Clyde realises Emily has been possessed by the dybbuk, thanks to the internet (if there were any justice, the online-research horror gimmick would have been outlawed after Art Bell’s cyber-cameo in I Know Who Killed Me; watch for that, you won’t believe your eyes). The stricken father attempts to secure assistance in the NYC ultra-Orthodox community in performing a Jewish exorcism.
It’s rather difficult to take this one very seriously, “based on a true story” or not ((I’ve written factually on the paranormal myself; please pardon my cynicism). There are one or two good jolts in The Possession, and the acting is all expert, but on the whole, I found it a lukewarm bowl of matzoh, and especially so-so considering it has the pedigree of horror specialists Sam Raimi and Robert Tappert as producers.
One interesting complaint one can make is The Possession falls back on the same narrative cliché that so many other Big Time Motion Picture projects have done regarding oft-unrepresented onscreen minorities: it obviously treats them as purely secondary figures in an ethnically cleansed Anglo dramatic dynamic. I hope I need not name all the hand-wringing liberal-infused dramas you’ve seen about suffering blacks in Africa, persecuted Native Americans, or starving Hindu peasants, in which – for some reason – white people are always front-centre in the speaking roles. Yes, we know Steve Biko got killed in Cry Freedom, but at least the white guy got away safely to embody “triumph of the human spirit” all over that anti-Apartheid classic.
Here the Hasidic-Jewish community is the “other,” the strange, insular, homogenous sect from whom victimised goyim Clyde is lucky enough to find a friendly mensch (a guest acting turn for none other than Jewish pop-vocalist Matisyahu) willing to help. So much for the canard that a small cabal of Jews controls all showbiz. I would have much preferred a story set in the Jewish community itself rather than amidst, well, tourists from the outside (and indeed, by 2020 someone actually did do an occult dybbuk movie, The Vigil, with this culturally apt premise).
The director here, Ole Bornedal, had formerly made Nightwatch, a Norwegian horror film that got high-profile attention and a Hollywood remake. But, given the drawbacks of this script, I might have preferred to see what Mel Brooks could have done with it, actually. Which is a true story.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA
“The scene where he goes mano a mano with the dybbuk will remind lots of people of Max von Sydow’s face to face with a demon in The Exorcist. Comparisons can be made with Linda Blair’s suffering in that film, and Natasha Calis’ tortured performance here. Fair enough. The Exorcist has influenced a lot of films, and this is one of the better ones.” RogerEbert.com
“While director Ole Bornedal’s horror is unlikely to win over many viewers, it’s certainly not an awful film (here’s looking at you, The Apparition). There are more than a handful of unintentional laughs to be had, though. A little girl giving you a stern stare from the yard isn’t haunting anymore, it’s just awkward. That said, The Possession does manage to deliver a handful of decent scares and legitimately creepy moments that might even give you the chills.” IGN
” … director Ole Bornedal doesn’t add a single idea of his own, cribbing the movie’s eerie lighting schemes from David Fincher (Zodiac), its hyperrealist mise-en-scene from Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), and, most predictably, its disquieting intimacy from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.” Chicago Reader
“Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick are fine as the parents of a girl (Natasha Calis) inhabited by an evil dibbuk released from an old wooden box, and Calis is appropriately creepy as that increasingly malevolent kid. Still, the scary bits are too familiar: It seems clichés are non-denominational.” Entertainment Weekly
Buy DVD: Amazon.co.uk
” … director Ole Bornedal has a fine, if too precious, visual sense. Bornedal repeatedly uses an aerial establishing device which he freely admits in his commentary is supposed to give the viewer the idea that “someone—or something—is watching us”, and while that’s kind of silly, there are some genuine scares scattered throughout the film…” Blu-ray.com
“Unlike the often tongue-in-cheek approach of some Raimi-produced horror movies, The Possession takes itself very seriously and moviegoers looking for a unique or unrelenting scare-fest will likely be underwhelmed. However, compelling leading actors and mostly engaging characters elevate the The Possession above some of its exorcism movie contemporaries – resulting in a competent but unremarkable horror drama hybrid.” Screen Rant
“It’s basically a standard possession film that has a rather predictable ending. All the while the father runs around in desperation, trying to find a way to help his little girl before something terrible happens. The furthest it gets in scares are the typical loud noises/bangs on the soundtrack…” We Got This Covered
Cast and characters:
- Jeffrey Dean Morgan … Clyde
- Kyra Sedgwick … Stephanie
- Natasha Calis … Em
- Madison Davenport … Hannah
- Matisyahu … Tzadok
- Grant Show … Brett
- Rob LaBelle … Russell
- Nana Gbewonyo … Darius
- Anna Hagan … Eleanor
- Brenda Crichlow … Miss Shandy (as Brenda M. Crichlow)
- Jay Brazeau … Professor McMannis
- Iris Quinn … Doctor
- Graeme Duffy … Lab Tech
- David Hovan … Adan
- Chris Shields … Assistant Coach
- Adam Young … Preston
- Jim Thorburn … First Responder
- Quinn Lord … Student
- Nimet Kanji … Nurse Patty
- James Sullivan … Pest Control Guy (as James O’Sullivan)
- Marilyn Norry … Principal
- Armin Chaim Kornfeld … Rebbe ShahJohn Cassini … Stephanie’s Attorney
- Josh Whyte … Player
- Greg Rogers … Doctor Walterson
- Agam Darshi … Court Representative
- Jarett John … Moss
- Tim Perez … Officer
- Cameron Sprague … Abyzou
- Jordan Stein … Hasidic Teen
- Charles Siegel … Hasidic #1
- Ari Solomon … Hasidic #2
- Alex Bruhanski … Hasidic #3
- Richard Newman … Hasidic #4
- Robert Morrissette … Hasidic #5
- Sol Pavony … Hasidic Rabbi
- Erin Simms … Possessed Italian Girl
- Frank Ferrucci … Italian Priest
- Sharmaine Yeoh … Possessed Islamic Girl
- Antoine Safi … Islamic Male Exorcist
- Ned Bellamy … Trevor
Aspect ratio: 2.35: 1
Audio: Datasat | Dolby Digital | SDDS | DTS (5.1)
The Possession was belatedly released in the US on August 31, 2012, having premiered at the Film4 FrightFest in London.