Ole Bornedal’s “The Possession” is “Kramer VS Kramer” meets “The Exorcist.”
It’s one part dysfunctional family drama mixed in a witches’ brew with one part possessed kid horror film, and the results are mildly entertaining, if overly familiar. Bornedal is best known for his Dutch horror thriller, “Nightwatch” (1994), and for also helming the American remake with Ewan McGregor in 1997. He also directed the effective sci-fi tinged horror flick, “The Substitute” (2007). “The Possession” represents his most mainstream Hollywood effort to date.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“The Watchmen”) and Kyra Sedgwick (TV’s “The Closer”) play a divorced couple trying to raise their two young daughters with a semblance of normality while they try to move on with their own lives. At least Sedgwick’s character is trying to move on, bringing a new live in boyfriend into their old home, while Morgan’s single father, basketball coach character seems to cling onto the hope that his family can be reunited. Morgan is the film’s biggest saving grace. He gives such a seemingly honest emotional and likable performance that the audience has an internalized investment in his plight when his youngest daughter’s body and soul are threatened by supernatural evil. A great deal of time and focus is spent on the family drama aspect of the story, and perhaps that’s why the suspense works as well as it does when the demon wind starts blowing and objects fly around rooms filled with creepy moths. We want Morgan to save his family as much as we want him to defeat the demon inside his daughter.
It’s a good thing the family dynamics work because we’ve seen this film before several times in the last few years, and it has never worked better than when it was called “The Exorcist.” I guess there aren’t that many variations you can twist into the “Possessed Kid” genre, and this film mostly follows the tried and true playbook. The only difference here is that the screenwriters decided to play with Jewish instead of Christian dogma and introduce the concept of the “Dybbuk Box,” which in this case holds the spirit of an ancient evil Hebrew demon.
Newcomer Natasha Calis plays Morgan’s youngest daughter, who is taking her parent’s divorce the hardest, and who becomes attached to the strange box with Hebrew inscriptions on it when at a yard sale during a father-daughter weekend. At first, her behavior changes are subtle; eating much more than usual and sudden bursts of anger and violence, but it isn’t long before corpse paint and black make-up under her eyes suggest to us without much subtlety that she’s going down the familiar Linda Blair route.
Instead of an elder, experienced exorcist, this time we’re given a young Jewish Rabbi played with a likable charm by an Hasidic Reggae/Beat Box/Rapper named Matisyahu. His character is a bit of a folksy rebel in his community, sort of Bob Dylan as a Jewish exorcist. It works.
There are a number of well played jump scares along the road to the big battle with the demon, but nothing we haven’t seen before in any number of ghostly and demonic films of the last five years. The music score by Anton Sanko pumps up the tension when the film would otherwise drag, such as in necessary driving/traveling scenes. The film goes comfortably right where we expect it to go right up to the expected “shock ending,” which is the same technique I’ve seen in half a dozen horror films from mainstream thrillers like “Final Destination” to classier ghost stories like “The Orphanage” in the last few years. I saw it coming miles away, and even though it always works to make an audience jump, I think it’s time we put this particular scene back in the Pandora’s Box seen in this film for awhile.
“The Possession” actually works better than most of the other recent “Exorcist” knock-offs, and young horror fans who haven’t seen as many of these creep out copycats will likely enjoy it the most. Thanks to a grounding performance by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and some earnest family drama, “The Possession” scores just above average in the Possessed Kid sub-genre.