Judge Gordon Sullivan's most prized possession is a rare 1920s bottlecap.
Pray for Her
Most readers will be at least vaguely familiar with Christian cosmology—God (whether singular or Father/Son/Holy Ghost), followed down by angels, humans, and animals. Satan is a fallen angel and commands a horde of demons. However, Christianity has only been around a couple thousand years, not very long in terms of human history. Its older brother, Judaism, has been around three times as long and has accreted three times as much mythology about the world. More importantly, most people aren't as familiar with Judaic beliefs about the world (spiritual or material). Maybe people have heard of the Golem because of the early horror film, but it's only one of a host of spirits or "monsters" that haunts Judaism. One of the more prominent is the Dybbuk (or Dibbuk, or any of its variant spellings), a demon-like spirit that can plague people. The Possession attempts to use this little-known spirit to craft a new take on the horror film, but too many clichés keep it from being completely effective.
Facts of the Case
Clyde Brenek (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Watchmen) is a basketball coach who cares deeply about his job. So deeply that it's lead him to a divorce from his wife (Kyra Sedgwick) and only weekend custody of his two daughters. Early in the film, on one of his weekends, Clyde shows the girls the new house he's bought for them. While out with the girls later, the trio stops at a yard sale to get dishes for the new house—Clyde indulges the girls and lets them have their pick of the yard sale. They choose the usual compliment of silly clothes, but Clyde's youngest also chooses and intricately carved box. What he doesn't know is that it's a Dybbuk box intended to house a malevolent spirit, and as Em is taken over by the spirit, strange things start to happen.
The first thing that stands out about The Possession is, of course, the use of the Dybbuk, likely to be a new, interesting horror baddie for most film fans. The box in which the Dybbuk is housed (or not, apparently) is beautiful and mysterious, really giving the film some effective atmosphere. Though I'm totally tired of the "based on a true story" nonsense, The Possession gets a nod for at least not trying to be a found footage film. I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but the film does a great job playing with the dynamics of divorce.
The second thing that stands out about The Possession is the cast. It's anchored by a strong performance from Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He's so solid, so everyman that he grounds the story in the plausible. Kyra Sedgwick also does a great job riding the line between concerned mother and believable ex-wife, never coming off as shrewish. The daughters are also excellent, selling their portrayal of the children of divorce thrust into an even more unbelievable situation.
The Possession (Blu-ray) is also excellent. The 2.40:1/1080p transfer is razor sharp throughout. So sharp, in fact, that some of the CGI looks a bit dodgy in places. Colors are muted but well-saturated. There's an amazing scene (shown in the trailer) where Emily runs through the deserted subdivision her father has moved into, and she seems to jump from pool of streetlamp to pool of streetlamp. The contrast between the dark and light areas shows how effective the black levels are in the film—very deep without noise. No obvious compression problems show up, either. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is beautiful as well, moody and atmospheric. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, while the surrounds get a hefty workout as well. They're used in most scenes, but especially well during scenes of possession.
Extras kick off with two commentary tracks. The first features director Ole Bornedal—he's talkative for much of the film about his inspirations and chats amiably about the production. He's silent a bit too often for my taste, but the stories he shares are interesting. The other track is from writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White. They mainly discuss the writing of the movie and how the writing team were kept in the loop throughout the production. There's also a 13-minute featurette that looks at "The History of the Dibbuk Box" that purports to talk to people who own or have owned Dybbuk boxes. It's a bit silly, but well-produced. Finally, the film's trailer is included. Both a digital copy and an Ultraviolet copy of the film are included as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The novelty of the Dybbuk cuts both ways. Though it's a new kind of horror to introduce most viewers, too, the film can't really rely on the audience's foreknowledge of the mythology of the Dybbuk the way that most Christian-centric films can assume viewers know at least a bit about demonic possession. That left me for much of the film wondering what the "rules" for the Dybbuk were. Before watching, I would have thought that not knowing would generate even more tension, but instead it left me less interested than I would have been in a more standard possession flick.
Part of the problem is the film's reliance on clichés from other possession flicks. We're dealing with another young girl dealing with a demon—just like The Exorcist. We're dealing with another dysfunctional family—remember Regan's absent father from The Exorcist? The rising action of the possession is the same as pretty much every other possession flick out there—innocent babe into violent, spooky monster. There are a couple of effective moments along Em's journey (the scene in the trailer featuring fingers emerging from her throat stands out), but a plague of moths and funny eyes are tired.
Finally, there's the problem of the rating. This is a PG-13 film, and it shows. There are numerous scenes that hint at something a little darker and more violent than what's on display here, and that's a film I want to see. The film definitely pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, but if they'd gone hard-R I think the film would have been much more effective.
The Possession isn't a bad film. Its solid cast and new(ish) central spirit give it a little something extra that the last decade's worth of possession films largely lacked. The excellent Blu-ray presentation and dual commentaries make it easy to recommend a purchase for fans of the film, and it's definitely worth a rental for those spooked by all things possession. Fans of more hardcore R-rated fare might find this flick a little tame.
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