In short, The Possession is not bad. It’s not a game-changing horror picture, nor is it a particularly remarkable effort. With that said, however, it fulfils its genre requirements in a satisfying fashion, providing a smattering of thrills and chills despite the restraints of its PG-13 rating. Problem is, it takes too long for the good stuff to kick in, leaving about an hour of pure mediocrity and boredom. The Possession carries the proverbial “Based upon true events” caption, as it was inspired by a Los Angeles Times article from 2004 which detailed ominous hauntings connected with an antique box purchased from eBay. It’s a fascinating concept, providing ample opportunities for mindless ghost antics, but the end result ultimately falls short of its potential despite promising moments here and there. Surprisingly, The Possession was actually produced by horror maestro Sam Raimi, who was seemingly on autopilot for the duration of the production.
In Upstate New York, recently divorced high school basketball coach Clyde (Watchmen‘s Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is working to build a stronger relationship with daughters Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Em (Natasha Calis). Moving into a house of his own, Clyde plays it cool with his offspring when they stay for a weekend, buying them junk food and letting them have whatever they want from a yard sale. At said yard sale, Em picks up an ancient wooden box inscribed with Hebrew passages, which she grows obsessed with. As Em is drawn closer and closer to it, her personality alters and her behaviour grows erratic. Upon investigating, Clyde discovers the legend of the Dybbuk Box; a piece of Jewish folklore which unleashes a demonic spirit. Short on options, Clyde turns to a rabbi named Tzadok (Matisyahu) for help.
The Possession‘s structural building blocks are pure cliché, with a now-divorced father and a set of children who prefer their mother. Oh, and the mother is dating somebody else. It’s basically Mrs. Doubtfire, only with more demons. And is it surprising to anyone that there’s a subplot about Clyde pursuing a new job that will require him to move? The Judaism angle helps to distinguish The Possession from more generic efforts (exorcism films are more concerned with Roman Catholicism, after all), but this stuff is untouched until the final third, after which screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White return to screenwriting formula for a standard-issue climax involving chases and exorcisms. The storytelling is fairly sloppy, too, with Clyde’s ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) stubbornly refusing to believe that anything serious is amiss with Emily even when she turns into a snarling, pasty-faced zombie. Furthermore, a major character hastily leaves the film under inconclusive circumstances, never to be seen again.
Although the film is exceedingly mediocre, director Ole Bornedal gets major credit for not making it as a found footage production. (Let’s not forget the utter debacle of The Devil Inside.) And at times, Bornedal’s handling of the material is truly outstanding, resulting in a few insanely atmospheric and creepy moments, not to mention some expositional scenes that build a nice sense of foreboding. Anchoring the picture is Morgan, submitting an effective performance which paints Clyde as an everyman. Morgan nails the role’s vulnerabilities and adds heart, shedding tears multiple times to powerful effect. However, it’s the young actresses playing the daughters who run away with the movie. Calis and Davenport look and interact like real sisters, and the girls handle the requirements of their roles with a confidence rarely seen in child actors. Most impressive is Calis, who runs through various personalities and emotions yet never seems faux or contrived. However, The Possession is a PG-13 film, and this is obvious. At times, the film pushes the boundaries of its rating with dark and violent material, but this only serves to show us what we could’ve been in for if the picture was a hard-R.
In better hands, the same filmmaking ingredients could have yielded an overall superior effort, but the film we have is purely mediocre. Rather than flat-out terrifying and enthrallingly creepy, The Possession springs to life in fits and starts, with Bornedal only sporadically figuring out how to scare us. Otherwise, all we get are jump-scares underscored by commanding musical cues, and a number of scenes of lifeless character interaction. Despite the Jewish flavour, the film is every bit as generic as its title, though horror aficionados may find this to be worthwhile as a rental.