Is everyone ready for some J-horror? No, I’m not talking about Japanese horror films (or those influenced by the genre). We have a new J-horror on the horizon with The Possession … what could be the first mainstream Jewish horror movie. And please don’t think I’m being anti-Semitic or anything, I’m deadly serious. I can’t recall any past horror film centered around a Jewish artifact like the Dibbuk (or Dybbuk) box, a container that holds a demon. In the film, the box is in the possession of an older woman. When she can’t handle hearing the odd voices coming from the box, she tries to smash it … but it smashes her up pretty badly before she can even land the first blow. The box is sold at a yard sale to Em (Natasha Calis), a young girl dealing with the divorce of her parents. She takes the box back to her dad’s house, finds out how to open it, and weird things begin to happen. Of course! Once dad (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) discovers what the box is, he drives into New York City to the Hasidic community to beg for help, but the elders say it is too dangerous and it must be left in God’s hands. A younger man agrees to help, setting the stage for an epic battle between good and evil. Naturally.
Oddly enough, before walking in to the press screening, I had to sign a form affirming I would not divulge any of the film’s secrets. Here’s the problem – the film has no secrets. If you’ve seen any horror film that involves some kind of possession over the last ten years or so, you’ve seen this movie. It’s basically The Ring, but with a wooden box instead of a videotape. Heck, you can go as far back as The Exorcist when comparing the final exorcism scenes, except instead of yelling, “The power of Christ compels you,” the young Jewish man yells the demon’s name over and over again to try to get it back in the box. Only thing missing is the pea soup. Except for the whole Jewish angle, the film is pretty derivative, and when your audience laughs at what is supposed to be scary – as Em’s possession deepens, she resembles the girl from the well in The Ring – you know you’ve got a problem. And when you have to rely on VERY LOUD MUSIC to telegraph the scares, it just demonstrates how desperate the filmmakers are. Only thing missing was a cat jumping into frame (at least the director showed some restraint by not having a housebreaking raccoon fill that role).
As far as the cast, I thought Calis did a good job transforming from the “pure of soul” little girl to the demon-possessed child. Her performance was aided by some truly disturbing CGI effects that were probably the scariest parts of the movie. Singer Matisyahu also gave a solid, if brief, performance and I really believed in him while he was trying to save the child from the demon. Kyra Sedgewick gets to play the stereotypical angry, divorced wife and mother who’s only function in the film is to constantly berate her ex-husband, and then fill the role of judge and jury when it’s suspected he slapped Em across the face (of course, that was just a trick of the demon). She does what she can with what she’s given, and she’s good at it. Grant Show turns on the smarm as mom’s new boyfriend, but after he’s attacked by the demon, he runs off, never to be seen again (his girlfriend never seems to give him a second thought). I generally like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, having been a fan since his time on Supernatural, and I don’t know if it was the dialogue or the direction he was given, but sometimes he just seemed to be phoning it in. I didn’t for a minute buy his anguish as he pleaded for help. It just seemed too forced (although some others thought he did a great job in that scene). Maybe that’s just Danish director Ole Bornedal‘s style … or his inexperience in working on an American film. Another problem with the film is that it originally received an R-rating from the MPAA and was edited down to a PG-13. Maybe some of the best horrific stuff got cut, and that’s why they had to resort to all the loud music.
Whatever it was, The Possession is just not a very scary movie. It’s obviously well-made with a sizable budget and a pretty solid cast, but it’s totally lacking in originality and scares (something producer Sam Raimi knows a thing or two about). I really wanted this movie to make me jump out of my seat, and it didn’t. Maybe they should have put that cat in there after all.