The Possession

Don't open that box!

Also opening this week:

• Taken 2 ★½

The Possession

Rating The PossessionThe PossessionThe PossessionThe Possession

Directed by Ole Bornedal. Starring Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Grant Show, Quinn Lord, Agam Darshi, Amanda Dyar, Natasha Calis, John Cassini. Written by Juliet Snowden & Stiles White, from the article “Jinx in a Box” by Leslie Gornstein.

Problem with all possession movies: the inevitable exorcism scene, in which a holy figure quotes an ancient text and the possessed individual writhes around in apparent pain, contorting their body and throwing objects around the room using telekinesis.

It’s not just that we’ve seen this before, in every single possession-themed movie; it’s that this scenario lacks inherent tension, because we have rarely have any concept of the strengths and weaknesses of the powers at play. The holy water and bible verses seem to hurt the demon – but how badly? The demon sure looks powerful, throwing all this crap around the room – but why not just levitate a knife through the priest’s throat?

Few films are able to overcome this. The Exorcist managed to turn it into a strength, exploiting our natural fear of the unknown rather than attempting to create any kind of logical suspense. Modern mainstream films like to feed the audience tension in rational, clearly stated and easily understandable doses, which in this scenario is nigh impossible.

And that’s where The Possession comes in: a nicely-produced, well-directed, competently-acted, but entirely generic possession film (love that inventive title, by the way) that loses its potential terror by over-explaining itself to us, and then doesn’t make enough sense anyway to work on any kind of logical level. 

Paint-by-numbers: divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) buys daughter Em (Natasha Calis) a demon-containing box at a garage sale, and the poor girl is soon possessed. This causes strife with ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and older daughter Hannah (Madison Davenport), and forces Clyde to confront the box and turn to religion for a possible solution.

Novelty: the religion this time around is Judaism, and the film casts Hebrew musician Matisyahu as Tzadok, the son of a Rabbi who comes to the family’s aid. The soft-spoken Matisyahu is an unexpected but arresting presence in the film, and The Possession really benefits from the offbeat casting. 

There’s also one near-great scene, when Clyde takes the box to a college professor who explains the theology behind it. The professor is played by Jay Brazeau with a kind of note-perfect this-is-damn-scary-stuff-but-of-course-we-don’t-believe-in-it ironic foreboding that recalls the horror films of Possession producer Sam Raimi (and in particular, Drag Me to Hell). 

Unfortunately, the script by Juliet Snowden & Stiles White (purportedly “based on a true story” – uh-huh) is so generic that there’s no room for anything unexpected (i.e., anything really scary). Not only do we know exactly where this is going, but the film’s internal logic (or lack thereof) prevents any tension from being built up along the way.

The Possession was directed by Ole Bornedal, who made a splash with the (excellent) 1994 Norwegian morgue-set thriller Nightwatch and then faded away (on the international scene, at least) after helming its (underrated) 1997 American remake. If nothing else, the film represents the work of a director in control of his craft; unfortunately, that craft is being wasted on something so conventional.

Still, amongst the recent wave of exorcism-themed films – which includes The Rite, The Devil Inside, and The Last Exorcism, amongst many others – The Possession represents one of the better efforts. Given the genre’s inherent weaknesses, this is about as good as it gets post-Exorcist

Also opening this week: 

  • Hotel Transylvania (showtimes | IMDb), a horror-themed animated film from Genndy Tartakovsky (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) featuring the vocal work of Adam Sandler and Kevin James. Screening in a Czech dubbed version, but you can catch it in English (in both 2D and 3D versions) at Cinema City Slovanský dům. Check back this weekend for a review.
  • Hasta la vista! (showtimes | IMDb), a Belgian comedy-drama from director Geoffrey Enthoven. Screening in Dutch with Czech subtitles.
  • Cesta do lesa (showtimes | IMDb), the new comedy-drama by Tomáš Vorel (Skřítek, Gympl). Screening in Czech.

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