In “The Possession,” a new horror movie from Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert‘s Ghost House production shingle, a young girl becomes infatuated and then, yes, possessed by a dubious Jewish spirit that had been kept imprisoned in a wooden box. As far as horror movie premises go, this one is pretty outlandish, even for a genre defined by chainsaw-wielding madmen, haunted hotels, and all manner of slippery, otherworldly creatures. The fact that the movie claims to be based on a true story doesn’t exactly legitimize anything, either. And what could have been a Jewish take on “The Exorcist,” full of existential dread and the violent collision of the new world and old faith, ends up coming across, instead, like a lesser (though considerably longer) episode of “The X-Files.”
Like any good episode of serialized television, it starts off with a little teaser. In it, an old woman is driven mad by an admittedly menacing-looking wooden box before she finally comes towards it with a hammer and then is driven backwards by some unseen force (this is the same unseen force that dislodged the words that had just appeared on screen to tell you that the story is based on a true-life tale), her face melting like a puttied stroke victim, before crashing around the room. It’s a violent, jarring opening sequence and one that puts you in the right frame of mind – it’s very similar to the opening of Raimi’s “Drag Me To Hell,” although, sadly, the comparisons to that film’s brilliantly apocalyptic, rocket-fueled scare-a-thon begin and end there. “The Possession” plays it painfully straight, even though the entire movie is based around living humans’ relationship with a talking haunted box.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a stalwart actor of lumpy everyday handsomeness, plays Clyde, a newly divorced father of two, just trying to keep his head above water. He’s the basketball coach for a local college and still has feelings for his foxy ex-wife Stephanie (played by Kyra Sedgwick). He’s moved into a new house recently, one on the outskirts of their small Northeastern town, which turns off his older daughter Hannah (Madison Davenport) but endlessly intrigues his younger one, Emily (Natasha Calis), who has a keen interest in nature (she’s recently gone vegetarian). On their first weekend in the new house they stop by a yard sale for plates and Emily becomes infatuated by the sturdy wooden box we saw from the opening. Clutching hold of it the way another child would hold a stuffed toy (or young animal), she glides by the window of the woman from the opening. She’s now bandaged and in a great deal of pain. Emily goggles. The woman tries to warn her but can’t.
Strange things start to happen around the new house, lending a kind of haunted house vibe to the movie without ever engaging in the traditional dynamics of that particular sub-genre, with the refrigerator door opening on its own accord (for a minute you expect E.T. to peek out) and a bizarre infestation of moths swarming the bathroom and bedroom. What’s more, young Emily becomes increasingly infatuated with the box, taking it with her to school (where it inflicts some after-hours pain on her teacher, in what is probably an unintentional nod to Joe Dante‘s “Gremlins“) and letting it change both her personality and appearance (at some point she starts dressing and doing her hair like a ghost from a Japanese horror movie). Things reach a point where something must be done, which we’re all very thankful for because we’re really eager for Anton Sanko‘s overactive score to calm the fuck down. After doing some research on the internet, Clyde thinks that he’s pinpointed the bad mojo as being the work of a Dybbuk, a Jewish ghoul, and you know how he knows this? Because he prints out a document called “Jewish Exorcism (How To).” Yes, seriously.
Clyde finds himself out of his league by a considerable margin, especially after Hannah claims that he abused the girl (thanks to her bruises and general surliness). The metaphor in “The Possession,” if there is any, is of the psychic toll that a divorce has on a young child. (There are probably other metaphors, about the place of “boxes” in our life – the boxes Morgan is forced to remove from his ex-wife’s house, the cars and houses and careers that are modern “boxes” in which we trap ourselves – but nothing’s ever fully developed and at this point could just be giving the filmmakers too much credit.) On this level, the movie works, as a kind of heightened (to the point of histrionics) dramatization of the pain that divorce can inflict, even when none of the parties are meaning to be cruel.
But mostly, “The Possession” is interested in silly horror movie tropes, and soon Morgan is traveling to Brooklyn (which got a hearty chuckle out of our Manhattan audience) to find a rabbi to assist him in the exorcism of his young daughter. He makes a tearful plea for someone to help him out, but we kept wondering why he didn’t go back to the house where he got the damn box from and ask them where it came from. That would certainly answer some, if not all, of his questions. Finally, a likable young rabbi (played by Hasidic rapper Matisyahu – no, we’re not kidding) agrees to take on the case, spurred on by ancient righteousness.
It’s here where things really go off the rails, because it’s the exact moment that “The Possession” could have elevated itself beyond cheap scare tactics and become something more. We kept waiting for modern technology to be introduced only for it to be quickly discarded. Just like in “The Exorcist,” Emily is given a high tech scan and just like in “The Exorcist,” the answers of technologically sophisticated medicine wither in the face of primordial evil. The film could have taken the technological bent even further, especially when coupled with the Jewish mythology, which is never really explained in sufficient detail (there’s stuff in the box, which reminded us of the scene in the basement of “Cabin in the Woods,” except with much less payoff).
You expect more from the film, especially considering that it was directed by Ole Bornedal, a Danish filmmaker who helmed the exceptional original “Nightwatch” (plus the less exceptional, Soderbergh-affiliated remake) and a really terrific sci-fi horror movie from a couple of years ago called “The Substitute” (which was released on home video in the United States thanks to Raimi and Tapert). But here everything feels limp – simultaneously over and undercooked. It doesn’t leave much of an impression and every scare seems to be either some lame jump scare or a fright inflicted by the shrill score. You can feel that he is trying to make it something more, and while it would have been great to have the Jewish equivalent of “The Exorcist,” this sure as hell isn’t it. [C-]