Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: The Possession (2012)

The Possession (2012), from producer Sam Raimi and Nightwatch director Ole Bornedal utilizes a “true story” scenario as the basis for its horrifying tale of demonic possession.  In particular, the story of a diabolical “dibbuk” (demon) box came to light some years ago when the owner of the box attempted to sell it on E-Bay, apparently fearing for his safety and life. 

The dibbuk box (or wine cabinet, actually…) has since been the subject of TV specials and a book, and the tale certainly makes for some good copy in relation to The Possession.  As I’ve written before, the old horror gimmick of intimating that a story is true increases considerably a production’s sense of immediacy and urgency.

What interests me most about this “true” story is the manner in which we allow items such as the “cursed” dibbuk box gain traction or power over our imaginations.  While I was writing this review, for instance, the computer cord to my wife’s computer, half-way across the office, fell suddenly from her desk and hit the wood floor.  And when I looked back at my computer keyboard, five ants were crawling on it...something that has never happened to me in my life.  Then just now, as I proofread this review, my laptop’s screen went black for a moment for no apparent reason.

Did these strange events occur because I was daring to write a review of The Possession?  Or did they occur because my cat Lila, unseen by me but present in the room, knocked down the wire?  Because I had finished eating my lunch a few minutes earlier and left some crumbs near the keyboard?  Because I’m writing on Microsoft software and hell, it’s always glitchy?

My only point here is that once you become convinced that something sinister boasts an influence over you and the events around you, it’s really easy to gaze at all succeeding facts as evidence of that theory.  Is the dibbuk box actually cursed with some kind of ancient malevolent power?  Or do we create the negative vibe from our own fearful imaginations and blame the box?

I only wish The Possession would have tread more deeply into this idea instead of going for a kind of boiler-plate demonic possession narrative and structure.  The movie would have been a lot scarier, actually, had it attempted some level of ambiguity about what was really to blame for the dark events in the lives of the central characters.

But because The Possession is so straight-forward, horror lovers may be disappointed with the film.  It is relatively tame in terms of action and violence, so much so that is rated PG-13, not R.  And if one is familiar at all with the general outline of demon possession films, The Possession follows that pattern with relatively little variation, surprise, or ingenuity.

That structure goes something like this. A nice family is shocked and horrified when a child begins acting strangely. The behavior worsens, and science can’t help, so religious authority is brought in to exorcise the demon inside.  The exorcism succeeds one way or another (by vanquishing the demon and/or directing the demon to another body), and then the young person is restored, and the family healed too.

Certainly, that’s the pattern of The Exorcist, and just because The Possession involves Hebrew spirits and religious material, that doesn’t differentiate the material to a substantial or meaningful degree.  Therefore, The Possession is relatively safe in terms of the scares it presents, and since the horror genre is about pushing decorum and boundaries, that’s a problem. 

The Possession stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Clyde, a man who has recently divorced, but who doesn’t want to be divorced.  His wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgewick) has left him in favor of a smarmy dentist, Brett, played as if a closet sociopath by Grant Show.  Clyde moves into his lonely new house, and sees his two daughters, Emily (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport) only on the weekends.

One weekend, Clyde and the girls visit a yard sale, and Emily buys the aforementioned dibbuk box.  After the strange box is opened and strange relics -- including a human tooth, a ring and a moth -- are found inside, Emily begins to act strangely.  She reports at one point that she doesn’t even feel like herself anymore. 
At first, Clyde and Stephanie blame their divorce for Emily’s increasingly anti-social behavior.  But before long, Clyde is certain that the strange Hebrew box has released a demon, one that is possessing his youngest daughter.  Clyde enlists the help of a Jewish rabbi’s son, Tzadok (Matisyahu) to expel the demon.

When he can’t do so immediately, Clyde invites the demon to take him and release Emily…

The Possession strikes upon a workable metaphor or sub-text involving the family and demonic possession, and in some sense, that’s the most intriguing aspect of this horror film.  In particular, The Possession really concerns divorce, and the impact of divorce upon young children. 

Emily is deeply depressed by her parents’ separation, and though her violent, anti-social behavior is ultimately attributed to the exorcism, it could clearly be attributed to her unsettled family life as well.  At one point, her high-school principal comments on how Emily no longer finds joy in learning, and has grown distant from her friends.  That doesn’t sound like demonic possession so much as it does depression.  

Viewed in this light, The Possession is about a splintered family that learns to act as a unit again, and save one of their own from darkness.

The problem, of course, is that this metaphor clearly has no merit in terms of the film’s presentation.  The audience has no doubts about Emily’s problem, given the ridiculous prologue, which features the dibbux box pounding and abusing an old woman. 

The relative predictability of the character responses, especially the obligatory disbelief of the mother, who would rather believe that her husband is beating her daughter than countenance the prospect of something supernatural, also poses a problem in terms of predictability.  Even the film’s final sting in the tail/tale -- which allows room for the dibbuk box to return and haunt another family in the inevitable sequel -- seems familiar to horror movies from here to eternity. It’s all just a bit pro-forma, or pre-packaged.

The scariest scene in The Possession is not the exorcism itself, which fails to improve on the gold standard, dramatized in Friedkin’s 1973 film, but rather an apparently routine visit to the hospital.  While Emily undergoes an MRI scan, Stephanie and Hannah see visual evidence of the demon lodged inside her, living in her chest.  There’s actually a demonic creature hiding in there, and it looks absolutely terrifying. 

The scene is so effective because we all, perhaps secretly, long for science to provide us concrete proof of things that go bump in the night.  Here, even science backs up the tale of demonic possession.  Of course, there’s no narrative follow-up.  The MRI pictures aren’t presented to the world to prove the existence of demons.

For every mildly effective moment like the MRI scan sequence, The Possession features several that don’t work.  For instance, at one point Brett is struck with the dibbuk box curse.  His mouth begins to bleed and his teeth suddenly fall out.  He staggers to his car and drives away, conveniently never to be seen again. 

What happened to him? Where did he go?  What does he believe now? The film doesn’t even feature a throwaway line indicating that “Brett is gone, and not coming back.”   In other words, he’s a convenient foil for Clyde early in the story, when the patriarch is separated from his family and forced to endure Brett’s presence at the head of his dinner table.  But once the family is back together, Brett is just a superfluous loose end, not to be seen or heard from again.

Also, Tzadok reveals in the third act the method by which to make the dibbuk leave Emily and return to the box.  Its name must be spoken aloud.  Yet during the actual exorcism, Tzadok fails to speak that name for a terribly long time, thus allowing the possessed Em to escape custody, and setting up a jump-scare scene of Clyde wandering in the dark, in search of her (in a morgue, of all places).

Given the real-life particulars of the dibbuk box, the story in The Possession just isn’t terribly interesting, stimulating, or surprising.  The film is well-made, well-acted and well-scored, but also almost completely lacking in scares and invention.   In the final analysis, The Possession just can’t exorcise the searing memory of Friedkin and Blatty’s The Exorcist, which even forty years later remains a landmark film in the genre.


  1. Hi John - I just watched The Possession last night. You're right, there were no exceptionally scary scenes. Liked you mentioned, the MRI was interesting; I also found the crawling dibbuk during the exorcism pretty creepy. However, I found the multiple scenes with Em/Dibbuk stuffing her face pretty disturbing. "She's not full yet...." gross.

  2. There have been some instances in which a horror film has a character appear and then immediately disappear. IMO, the best is in the Amityville Horror (1979) in which a man, looking like a hobo and completely out of place in the upscale suburban neighborhood, knocks on the kitchen door and asks Margot Kidder if she wants a beer. Her attention is diverted, she turns back, and he is gone, never to be seen again. Now the unexplained appearance and disappearance of this completely out-of-place character always creeped me out. But....it is not creepy when a character like the boyfriend in 'The Possession' ups and disappears for the rest of the film. It's not creepy at all....it's sloppy, sloppy writing.

    It was demon night last Saturday. I watched 'The Exorcist' with my fiance who has never seen the film before, right before we viewed 'The Possession'. Not fair to 'The Possession', kinda like watching 'Jaws' before 'Shark Night 3D'. The MRI sequence stands out because it is so directly linked to 'The Exorcist'. The technology of 1973, juxtaposed with the technology of 2013, to essentially treat the exact same problem.... is quite stunning. This is a film in which the prologue set the entire narrative tone for the film, there can be NO ambiguity on behalf of the viewer after the first 5 minutes. So, it's not going to be a cerebral horror film, and since it's PG-13, it's been safely neutered for a 13 year old. So essentially, what you have left is a Lifetime movie about divorce with a some demonic possession thrown in.


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