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Not "The Exorcist," But "The Possession" Not Half-Bad

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How many more horror films can be made about possessions, demons, and exorcisms? The jig might be up on “Exorcist” copycats, considering the output of 2009’s laughable “The Unborn,” about a miscarried dybbuk-twin from the Holocaust, and 2011’s plodding “The Rite,” where Anthony Hopkins went all Linda Blair in priest mode. At the beginning of this year, we already got “The Devil Inside,” a cheap, dissatisfying found-footage possession pic, and now at the end of the summer, we just had the hairbrained “The Apparition” and now “The Possession.” While the others botched their shock moments and were more unintentionally funny than creepy, “The Possession” straddles the line of being schlocky and creepy, and it’s not half-bad. It’s better and more classically minded than most watered-down horror films that usually feel shackled by the MPAA’s PG-13 rating.

The filmmakers want to us to believe that this is “based on a true story”—okay, there really was a jinxed wooden cabinet on EBay—but that hardly matters here. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Clyde Brenek, a college basketball coach who’s been divorced for three months from his wife, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), for being absent all the time. Now, he gets to see his two daughters, bratty teenager Hannah (Madison Davenport) and animal-loving, vegetable-eating 10-year-old Emily (Natasha Calis), on weekends. Emily still thinks Mommy and Daddy will get back together, but Hannah assures her that it won’t happen. After Clyde shows his girls his new house in an unfinished subdivision and feeds them pizza (against Stephanie’s wishes), he takes them to a yard sale. Em then finds a wooden box with Hebrew engravings and has her father buy it. Pretty soon after she opens the box that whispers to her, the girl isn’t herself, as moths flutter throughout her room and her eyes roll in the back of her head. It can’t possibly just be the divorce that’s got her down, so of course, the box must be containing a dybbuk, or an evil spirit in Jewish folklore. Don’t you hate it when that’s the case?

Besides being something of a Judaic variation on 1973’s seminal, inimitable “The Exorcist” that rooted its supernatural elements in Christianity, “The Possession” doesn’t offer anything new in the derivative demonic-possession subgenre. Screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (who both co-wrote 2005’s “Boogeyman”) deftly mix possession into the domestic drama, but don’t really bring faith into the mix—the dybbuk just wants to prey on innocence and that’s that. Do all religious denominations have demons? And why are the Emilys of the world always being possessed? There are also abandonment issues to account for, like completely dropping the connection to the film’s opening involving the box’s first owner/host that barely survives, as well as the quick send-off of Stephanie’s new man Brett (Grant Show), an orthodontist that makes himself at home in her house, after facing the dybbuk’s wrath.

For all the overlapping familiarity in the film’s premise, it’s not always what it’s about but how it’s about it. Releasing the film in such a youth-driven market, director Ole Bornedal (of 1997’s darkly atmospheric, underrated “Nightwatch”) actually takes the time to introduce and develop his characters and unfolds the supernatural happenings with a restrained, methodical mood that’s hard to find in horror films these days. The shock moments are simultaneously unnerving and nutso—Emily wolfing down pancakes and then stabbing her father’s hand with a fork, fingers emerging from Emily’s throat, and a sinister Gollum-like face appearing in an MRI readout. Bornedal hardly falls back on cheap jump scares, but a few standard horror movie clichés remain intact, like a schoolteacher working at her desk overnight solely with a lamp (because lighting is overrated); Stephanie entering the kitchen without turning on the lights; and when Em tells Daddy not to touch her box, we know he will.

“The Possession” looks and sounds great, too. The sound design is effective, and most of the scare beats include classically overstated musical crescendos, courtesy of composer Anton Sanko’s banging piano keys, that smash cut to silence. Some of the dun-dun stings are almost out of John Williams’ “Jaws” score. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is crisp with a chilly, desaturated color palette and an autumn feel. Also, performances are above par for a film of the genre. Morgan and Sedgwick are quite persuasive as the loving parents and divorcees that initially remain on genial if awkward terms. Calis is excellent as Emily, portraying her as a girl who’s deeply affected by her parents’ divorce as well as the host of a demon. For what she has to do when Em is under demonic influence, like gagging, chowing down food like a ravenous predator, and not blinking, she’s fully convincing and very much a creepy little devil.

When Clyde brings in a rabbi’s son Tzadok (Hasidic reggae/hip-hop artist Matisyahu) in hopes of saving Emily, the overwrought but exciting climax set in the hospital’s private physical therapy room turns up the intensity and volume. With a few unintended laughs (Tzadok saying “I hate hospitals—people die here” for one), this last section happens like a crazy bag of tricks exploding from an overstuffed closet. Bornedal employs a flashy strobe-light effect; we catch a flickering glimpse of the CGI dybbuk; there’s a reminder of Bornedal’s “Nightwatch” in a dark morgue; and Emily turns into a white-eyed demon out of the “Evil Dead” movies (which is appropriate, considering producer Sam Raimi “presents” this film). Worse, the finale is an anticlimax and a sequel setup, as if leaving things on a more subtle note wasn’t good enough.

Capable of standing the test of time as much as that Leslie Nielsen-Linda Blair “Exorcist” spoof “Repossessed,” “The Possession” is a near-miss. There’s the nagging regret that it could have been scarier, but refreshingly not of the found-footage persuasion, this is a minor but worthwhile effort that provides eerie shocks and a “beware of garage sales!” moral.

91 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +