Loosely based on what we’re told are actual events, the latest horror film from director Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch) wraps the “child-possessed-by-demon” subgenre in an intriguing new package – a dibbuk box, a cabinet containing a malevolent spirit from Jewish folklore. While inspired by a 2004 Los Angeles Times article about an unearthly eBay auction, the screenplay quickly veers off on a different, and refreshing, path.
Horror fans who enjoy over-the-top splatter and high body counts may not find what they’re looking for in The Possession, a methodical, character-driven story that’s as much about a family struggling with the torment of divorce as with the forces of evil. Laid-back college basketball coach Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Supernatural and Watchmen) and his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick of The Closer) agree on very little, but when their youngest daughter Em begins exhibiting odd behavior after buying a wooden box at a yard sale, the estranged family is forced to work together to defeat the evil spirit intent on stealing her soul.
The Possession unravels slowly, but that's not a bad thing. Moody, atmospheric lighting coupled with a focus on practical effects make the film seem almost like something from another era. The fluttering pages of a prayer book in Morgan's hands as he tries to cast out the demon invader probably cost about five dollars to execute and it's far more compelling and honest than anything a CGI artist could dream up. Bornedal is not unlike the leader of a nostalgia band, celebrating the psychological hits of a simpler time, like when Morgan finally opens the dibbuk box and finds a number of creepy tokens inside, including a disgusting old tooth. That simple moment is like a haunting refrain, evoking the good, old-fashioned creeping terror of Roman Polanski's apartment trilogy.
But for all of its effective scares, the movie is not entirely a success. For one thing, the opening feels as if it were scooped out of the guts of a genre TV show -- like a first-act teaser for The X-Files or Supernatural, where the “monster of the week” -- in this case, the dibbuk box -- is shown for the first time. Another scene involving one of Em's officious teachers also appears from out of nowhere, like it might have been tacked on to appease a studio executive concerned the film might not offer enough gore. Moments like these significantly mar the slow-burn vibe and give the impression that someone with a lot of power didn't entirely trust that the film was scary enough on its own.
Morgan doesn’t break any new ground as Clyde, but he's comfortable in the role and certainly likeable enough. By contrast, Sedgwick is unfortunately playing the perpetually disappointed, harpy ex-wife who threatens Morgan about feeding their daughters pizza and nags him about not removing his shoes when he enters her house. Clyde may want to reconcile with his former spouse, but with the way Sedgwick’s character behaves, that concept is almost as mystifying as the dibbuk box itself.
At the center of the film is Natasha Calis (NBC's The Firm), a fierce little actress who impresses as the tortured dibbuk host Em. Alternating between violent outbursts and abject fear, Calis delivers an inventive, complex performance that’s often upsetting, as in one scene that has the animal activist and vegetarian hunched over a plate of raw meat crying and growling as her inner demon forces her to choke down the meal.
Bornedal and casting director Nancy Nayor deserve a lot of credit for discovering Calis, but the real find may be Orthodox reggae / rap musician turned actor Matisyahu, who plays Tzadok, the man tasked with saving Em from the dibbuk. What could easily have been a stock religious “exorcist” character is elevated by Matisyahu’s smart, quirky delivery and dry sense of humor, adding another layer of depth to a character torn between tradition and altruism.
The Possession opens today nationwide.