With the popularity of the zombie having waned to the point where it exists primarily in the realm of pop culture obsessions and people who think it’s still somehow relevant to, well, anything, the possession film has taken the reigns as the next horror subject we’re destined to beat into the ground. Since The Last Exorcism in 2010, we’ve seen at least one theatrical possession-based film every subsequent year, with Ole Bornedal’s The Possession, produced by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Productions, marking the second film of 2012 that attempts to force demonic possession down our throats.
The Possession opens with an introduction to the malevolent Jewish spirit known as the dibbuk, confined in a box detailed with Hebrew carvings and no discernible means of entry. Its owner, an old woman, hears voices coming from the box and, after attempting to destroy it with a hammer, is overcome by the spirit and seriously injured. The film then jumps to Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a recently divorced father dealing with raising his two young daughters Emily (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport) while putting up with his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and her uptight new dentist boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde, relegated to spending time with his kids on the weekends, stops at a yard sale to purchase various items for his new house, prompting Emily to purchase the aforementioned dibbuk box.
Later that night, hushed voices emanating from the box wake up Emily, who opens it and rifles through its contents: containers of varying sizes, an old ring, a perfectly excised tooth, and a desiccated moth prove no hindrance to Emily’s interest in the box. Almost immediately odd events begin to plague Clyde’s new home while Emily begins to act distant and violent as she slowly succumbs to the malevolent spirit that wants nothing more than to find a living host.
Unfortunately, The Possession’s story is nothing you haven’t seen a million times already. It’s a standard paint-by-numbers affair, with Snowden and White’s script following a formula that results in every beat, note, and twist seen coming from a mile away. Despite the predictability of the story, Bornedal keeps the tension evenly paced, eschewing jump scares for lingering dread; when faced with action, however, Borendal prefers to truncate these often frenetic and violent scenes before quickly cutting to a minimalist leitmotif that quickly becomes repetitive. It’s as if he felt it worked so well the first time it’s used that it must be inserted at every possible opportunity. The end result is a somewhat uneven film, mixing the seriousness often found in indie horror with the bombastic approach endemic to high-budget thrillers.
Much of the success of the film is due to an incredible performance from Calis, whose slow transition from doe-eyed innocent to demon-possessed hellraiser imbues in the contrivances a respectable level of fright that at times channels Linda Blair’s performance in The Exorcist. At first it’s a mere distancing of herself from her family and speaking to imaginary friends, but as the dibbuk begins to take hold and firmly ingrain itself in her, her behavior becomes erratic and violent, yet still containing an air of innocence; the dichotomy of the character is essential to making the possession seem real (as real as a possession can be, that is), and Bornedal brings this out of Calis in a way that is worthy of recognition.
As Emily’s father, Jeffrey Dean Morgan brings an intense likability to Clyde, while Kyra Sedgwick is just sort of there, a replaceable shell of a human that could have easily been played by any number of actresses. She is, however, a perfect counter to Clyde, who simply wants to do right by his daughters despite the interference of his ex-wife. Clyde’s quest to seek help for his daughter brings him into contact with Tzadok, an orthodox Jew from New York who assists with the exorcism of Em. Played by Hasidic rapper Matisyahu (our first introduction to the character sees him sitting on some steps singing along to some music piped through headphones), he brings a bit of levity to a film that, for the most part, plays everything with a straight face.
Despite its formulaic structure and uneven tone, The Possession offers enough clever scares – one scene in a hospital will have you rethinking your next MRI – and solid performances to consider it a welcome entry in a rather tepid year for theatrical horror. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.