‘The Possession’ Review
In that classic 1975 shark movie, Steven Spielberg ramped up the tension by waiting as long as possible before he actually showed us some Jaws. In ‘The Possession,’ Danish director Ole Bornedal similarly sustains suspense until he finally shows us some Jews.
‘The Possession’ may be just another supernatural horror film to you, but to those of us of Hebraic origin, it’s something we’ve been excited about for quite some time. Finally, a Jewish horror film (and not just a Bernie Madoff documentary!) Yeah, the Roman Catholics may have incense, gothic architecture, stained glass and the fearsome sound bites from the Book of Revelation, but for real scares you can stay O.G. with the O.T. (Old Testament.) (OK, I’ll stop now.)
‘The Possession,’ which borrows heavily from ‘The Exorcist,’ ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘Hellraiser’ uses the Jewish folk legend of the Dybbuk Box as its MacGuffin. A Dybbuk Box is something like the containment unit from ‘Ghostbusters.’ Lured by personal objects, a wandering, evil spirit would be trapped in it and, so long as it was never opened, it could do no harm. If it does get open, the purest, healthiest soul better lookout, because they are fixin’ to get possessed.
Emily, a spunky tyke who loves her newfound vegetarianism, spots an odd wooden object with odd lettering (Hebrew!) on it and begs her Dad (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to buy it. He does, because as a newly divorced Dad, he’s doing his best to reconnect with his kids. In addition to Emily there’s the older (but not quite mature) Hannah and, surprisingly, these family scenes have a noticeable crackle.
All the actors (plus the ex-wife Kyra Sedgwick) play the nuked nuclear family like they’re still trying to catch their breath. Everyone wants to be civil, but all are still hurting. Best, though, is Hannah (Madison Davenport) who pivots between rebellion and faux-disinterest but is still a needy child.
But it’s all eyes on Emily, because she’s the one who opens the box, she’s the one with moths flying out of her mouth, she’s the one making Mom’s new boyfriend bleed out of his gums and she’s the one, ultimately, who needs the redemptive spirit of God.
After a rather thorough escalation of spooky occurrences – not rushed, not boring – Jeffrey Dean Morgan realizes that a Dybbuk is overtaking his daughter. (He’s a college basketball coach, and his visit to the humanities professor with “Self Possession Thru Transformation” scrawled on the blackboard is a comedy highlight of the film.) Knowing he needs an expert – basically Max von Sydow from ‘The Exorcist’ minus foreskin – he gets in his car and zooms.
This, then, is cinema’s first third act race to Borough Park, Brooklyn.
For those not in the know, Borough Park home to the most hardcore of orthodox Jews. The ones who wear fur hats in August because, well, it’s a long story why they do that. There he meets a younger scholar (played by the actual Hasidic reggae/rap star Matisyahu, subject of 300 different NPR spotlights) who is also the son of the Chief Rebbe. How hardcore are these guys? They speak Yiddish, not Hebrew, which is either a nice touch of verisimilitude, or merely an opportunity to get a spooky guy in full beard to answer “what does it want?” with the whispered word “Leben.”
The final section of the film is no better or worse than your usual mid-budget horror flick with stars of a caliber of Jeffrey Dean Morgan or Kyra Sedgwick. What differentiates ‘The Possession,’ apart from its family moments and Semitic roots, is a stylized, tricks-happy post-production style.
‘The Possession’ makes remarkable use of sound design, something quite noticeable in a genre that is usually ubiquitous with “booms” – crutches to accentuate moments that aren’t carrying enough weight on their own. Borndeal plays with silence, cuts to black for chapter breaks in unexpected places and basically provides a rhythm that is altogether unique. There are also recurring images of the quiet suburban town shot from a God’s-Eye View that quickly becomes unsettling.
‘The Possession’ is straight-up formula, but, by and large, it is formula done well. I got scared when I was supposed to and, once or twice, genuinely wanted little Emily to be okay. For those of the tribe who may titter at the thought of hearing “Pikuach Nefesh” referenced in a genre film, this can only help matters.‘The Possession’ opens in theaters on August 29th.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.