Possession and exorcism movies have a bit of a monoculture going on; they’re all but the exclusive province of the Catholic Church. But Judaism was around long before any flavor of Christianity, and being that old it comes with its own brand of homegrown demonology that’s just waiting for the right movie to come along and mine it for horror gold. Unfortunately, The Possession is not that movie. Bland and manipulative, it brings nothing new to the table to distinguish it from yet another retread of The Exorcist‘s familiar ground.
The film purports to be adapted from the true events that befell one family over the course of a month. The Breneks — Clyde (Harry Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) — are recently divorced, and naturally it’s hard on their kids, teenaged Hannah (Madison Davenport) and ten-year-old Emily (Natasha Calis). Hannah makes her father stop at a yard sale on the way to return them from a weekend visitation, since he needs dishes for his newly-built, all-but-empty house. Em is instantly drawn to an old wooden box with no visible seams, but covered in Hebrew inscriptions.
The box, we have seen in an opening scene, is evil. As we are eventually told, it was built to contain a dybbuk — a particular sort of Jewish demon — and indeed things go downhill when Em innocently discovers the catch that opens it. Creepy and scary stuff starts happening, and eventually Clyde has to drive down to Brooklyn to pick up a Hasidic rabbi, Tzadok (Matisyahu), to help get the dybbuk back in the box.
Now, there is a mildly-infamous “dybbuk box” out there, and an associated string of bad luck explainable through the confirmation bias: people believe the box is cursed so whatever bad that would have happened anyway gets chalked up to the curse. But despite that box being opened, the most common experiences consist of funny smells and nightmares. Clearly the story needs to be punched up for a movie, and in the process it turns into every other possession story out there.
Okay, fine. You went to the Carnegie Deli expecting a reuben, but they offered you roast beef and cheese. It doesn’t mean it’s bad; throwing some sauerkraut on it doesn’t really make it what you were hoping for, but it may still be a good sandwich. But the sauerkraut is from a can, the cheese is American singles, and it’s on untoasted white bread; you could get this anywhere, and it’s not very impressive.
Here, it’s the scares that come out of a can, and the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Over and over again: something weird happens, accompanied by a pervasive and ever-intensifying score that soars upwards into a shriek, only to be cut off as the scene slam-cuts to an overhead view of some building, punctuated by a single, low piano strike. By the time Clyde gets around to actually investigating the box in the third act we know the formula by heart.
Morgan does a decent enough job as the desperate parent, though, and Calis is more than effective as both the frightened child and the possessing demon. But they’re not enough to carry a story that’s been done better many times before. You don’t get a Jewish exorcism just by slapping some payot on a priest.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.