Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
September 2012

The Possession

What's in the box?

'The Possession' is a reasonably effective entry in an all too shopworn template

The Possession
Director: Ole Bornedal
Screenplay: Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, based on the article Jinx in a Box, by Leslie Gornstein
Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Natasha Calis, Kyra Sedgwick, Madison Davenport, Matisyahu and Grant Show
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 32 minutes
Opened August 31, 2012
(out of four)

That The Possession is one of the strongest exorcism/possession movies we've seen in a while is both an indictment on the subgenre as a whole, and a credit to director Ole Bornedal and what he was able to do with second-rate material.

There's been a strange durability to this particular horror sub-category. I'd imagine its popularity has something to do with the "based on a true story" nonsense marketing ploy angle, a description that accompanies virtually all exorcism movies nowadays. The combination of a religious component (especially to a largely religious audience base) with the unexplained mystery of any such "true" story is a tantalizing mix. In much the same way that mysterious footage in UFO documentaries or feature films merely re-affirms the beliefs or assumptions of those inclined to believe in conspiracy theories in the first place.

But the fact remains most of these films only really register in the cheapest way - morbid curiosity, combined often with gullibility - but fail as drama. They all seem to fall into most of the same traps. This is precisely what holds The Possession back - its needless reliance on dead-end subplots and devices - but what impressed me was the way Bornedal sidesteps as many potholes as he can. Yes, the character setups are obvious. Of course the parents have just gotten divorced. Of course the dad works late hours and accidentally misses his daughter's dance performance. Of course the mom has a new boyfriend that the audience is pre-conditioned to hate intensely.

Very little of that has anything to do with anything. Those elements are in place to direct the story down predetermined paths, not to provide any interest of their own. So there are plenty of moments where we might roll our eyes. But when you get past all that, there's some well-crafted suspense filmmaking on display here as well.

Bornedal opens and closes the film with a pair of loony, disturbing sequences that could be read as genuinely creepy or pure camp - even both - but which I thought worked pretty well either way you looked at them. The two scenes serve as a nice frame for the central story, which centers around a young girl who quite accidentally finds herself the target of an evil spirit.

Ten-year-old Em (Natasha Calis) is out with her father Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) when they decide to stop by a local yard sale to pick up some dishes for dad's new house. Em sets her eyes on a mysterious box, engraved with Hebrew lettering and lacking any feasible way of opening it. No doors, no visible locks. As it turns out (and the opening scene already gave us a hint of what this thing is and where it came from), it is a "Dybbuk box," which in Jewish mythology (or at least this movie's version of it) is a container designed to ensnare a demon. Once the box is opened, it is said, the spirit will try to latch onto a "host." Em is the unlucky winner.

Bornedal finds some interesting rhythms to the unfolding horror story. He organizes the build-up to the inevitable exorcism-centric third act by separating (and thus emphasizing) key moments. A sequence will reach its fever pitch and he'll abruptly cut to silence, then fade in with an overhead shot and the same somber, ominous piano cue. It's an effective stylistic choice, one that gives the tension room to breathe and an enhanced sense of dread. It almost feels like he's using that structure in order to avoid those awkward transitional scenes (right after a horrific event, before the film has to shift back into normalcy) we're so used to seeing from other movies. He smartly, and simply, cuts things off and gets us settled back into a sense of invariably fleeting tranquility.

This inevitably leads Clyde to confront the possibility of supernatural forces and solicit the help of the Hasidic community in New York City, a few hours' drive away. One man, Tzadok (Matisyahu), is willing to offer his help.

That we can see where all this is going is to be expected. The movie is, after all, banking on its exorcism as a selling point. But while the late sequences match the technical effectiveness of the earlier parts, what begins to set in is an overriding feeling of inconsequentiality. And that, to me, was the final result of The Possession. It is a well-crafted attempt at this type of story and I enjoyed it up to a point, but it's too narrow in its intentions to leave much of a lasting impact.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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