There are, in my mind, two kinds of horror movies. There’s the kind where you don’t particularly care about any of the characters, all of whom exist only to meet grisly ends. Then there’s the kind where you truly like the characters, and half the unease comes from seeing these people face something terrifying. This is the harder kind of horror to pull off, and usually horror hounds are satisfied with movies where they don’t HATE all the characters.
What makes The Possession a cut above is the fact that you like the characters. The family drama in The Possession is just as, if not more, gripping than the horror story. What’s more, the two elements work thematically together. In fact they work so well together that I think the movie drops the ball by not making a bigger deal of these thematic elements.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is Clyde, a recently divorced dad of two girls. He has moved into a new house and takes the girls on weekends while mom - Kyra Sedgwick - builds a life with her new boyfriend. Dad spoils the girls rotten, and when one of them wants a creepy wooden box from a yard sale, he happily coughs up the cash.
But we know the box is up to no good. In the prologue we saw the previous owner, an old lady, beat the shit out of herself in vintage Sam Raimi style, apparently at the behest of the box. It turns out the antique is a dybbuk box (the film was originally called The Dybbuk Box, in fact, a more evocative name if you ask me) - a Jewish magical item intended to imprison an evil spirit. The spirit has escaped, and it begins possessing the oldest daughter, Em.
The script, by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, is smart. As Em succumbs to the dybbuk she starts engaging in behavior you might expect from a teen going through a divorce - anger, late night binging, self-harm - but magnified supernaturally. But this is also where the movie sort of drops the ball; I would have liked to see a version of The Possession where Em’s behavior leads her parents to suspect the worst, to assume she’s been abused or on drugs or having a psychotic break. Basically I would have liked to see We Need To Talk About Em, with the big reveal being that she’s demon-possessed.
While that might have elevated the movie to another level, The Possession works just fine as a well-made, smart horror movie. It is truly well-made; in an era of shitty found footage and jump-cut horror, director Ole Bornedal knows how to shoot a movie. He places his camera to maximize the space in the frame, sometimes emphasizing beautiful and ethereal images and sometimes creating a palpable sense of dread.
This comes to a head in the film’s climax, which is truly terrifying. There’s a moment where demon possessed Em is in a hospital morgue, illuminated only in the red light of an exit sign, speaking in a truly inhuman way, that gave me the honest to God willies.
Make no mistake: this is Ole Bornedal’s film. While Sam Raimi’s genius producer's touch is evident in a couple of scenes (two demon assaults that have the Raimi energy, as well as an over-the-top professor type giving a knowing, self-parodic information dump), everything is fully filtered through Bornedal. Bornedal previously had a flirtation with Hollywood - he directed a remake of his own film Nightwatch (not that one) - but it never worked out. Hopefully The Possession shows the town that Bornedal is a truly gifted filmmaker. Or maybe he’ll be happier in Denmark, where he’s already been making very good movies.
The third element that makes The Possession a success is the acting. Morgan is the ultimate enstranged dad; he’s so cool that all the moping he does about his broken family life is acceptable. Kyra Sedgwick has one of those impossible roles we see so often for women in modern movies, where she’s painted as fairly unlikable for the majority of the picture, but she carries it off, investing her character in something deeper than bitterness at her ex. And believe it or not novelty rapper Matisyahu is pretty good as the Jewish exorcist who helps the family out. At the very least he has a real beard and everything.
The powerhouse performance, though, comes from Natasha Calis as Em. The role requires such a range from her that it would challenge an actress twice her age. Callis is never a moppet, always real and - once the demonic business gets truly underway - is actually menacing and creepy. The whole movie hinges on Em, and Calis is perfect.
The possession genre is a creaky one. It’s tough when the best movie in the genre was also the first, and The Possession does not topple The Exorcist. Or even come close. But it works, and it works for the same reason The Exorcist holds up - you like these characters.
When The Exorcist came out Catholicism was an exotic and strange religion; decades of Satanic movies have stripped away that exotic quality, and so The Possession brings in Jewish mysticism. The scenes in (a very unconvincing) Brooklyn, where Dad is trying to get help from an enclave of Orthodox elders, nicely captures a sense of old world strangeness, the same strangeness that Catholicism had just before Vatican II. But this is the second movie in recent years to address Jewish mysticism (The Unborn is the other), and I suspect it won’t be the last. This too will become familiar. I’m excited for the day when we get a Muslim exorcism movie - maybe a Sufi-flavored one, complete with whirling dervishes.