A few nights ago, I saw an episode in the TV show “Paranormal Witness” about a box that seemed to contain pure evil. The story was about a family’s struggles with something that had inspired this Sam Raimi co-produced fright flick “The Possession”. Directed by Ole Bornedal, (responsible for “Deliver Us from Evil”) this film was originally titled “The Dybbuk Box”, and is based on the box's story after the first ebay auction. The film’s production was wrapped in several odd coincidences as all the props of the film had accidentally burned in the warehouse after its completion. It had also been stated that Jason Haxton (click on link to see story), the present owner of the dybbuk box had offered to send the filmmakers the actual box, which Bornedal and company strongly declined--they even did not want to see a photo of it. Fact or marketing ploy? You decide. All I know is that these dybbuk boxes do exist.
Based on a true story, the film begins with a woman who attempts to protect herself with Holy Water and a hammer while she tries to open a wooden box. Things end violently until the viewer is introduced to a recently divorced couple, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (Kyra Sedgwick) whose divorce is starting to take its toll on their children, Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Em (Natasha Callis). One day, Clyde and his two daughters stop by a garage sale and Em finds a liking to an old wooden box, and asks her father to buy it for her. After Em had opened the box, really strange things begin to occur, and even Em begins to act differently towards her parents and friends at school. It so happens that the wooden box is some sort of ancient talisman made to contain a sinister and malevolent force. Desperate, Clyde seeks out the aid of a local Hasidic community and was able to enlist the aid of a man named Tzabok (Matisyahu).
I will have to admit, the film has borrowed some elements from past horror films. I saw several things that had definitely been inspired by “The Exorcist”, “Amityville Horror” and several movies whose premise revolved around an ancient evil being awakened. To make the film feel a little more fresh and unpredictable, the screenplay uses the allegory of a divorce and certain Jewish beliefs and legends to drive its plot. I have to admit, it is refreshing to see a possession flick that dispenses of the usual catholic overtones, and instead, this film gives a glimpse of the Jewish supernatural lore that is indeed one creepy premise.
The film starts out strong and while some Sam Raimi signatures were obvious in some scenes, the direction was able to stand on its own, made some credible scares, all the while developing its story. Admittedly, some of the jump scares and shock value felt a little derivative to other horror flicks of this kind, but I appreciated the way the direction and the acting were able to take control. Bornedal was able to make the set ups valid in drawing out the creepy points, he practiced a sense of restraint in the film’s build-up, as the viewer is drawn to anticipate the film’s final act. The screenplay was able to build on its character, and while it missed some light details, they weren’t too much to bother me.
There were several unsullied scenes that was able to generate tension and that feeling of dread. The scene in the MRI hospital room really stood out as well as the inclusion of the touches of the moth infestation (nice to see this instead of flies). The direction manages to bring forth that feeling of the unexplained, as Clyde struggles with what he is seeing his daughter go through. I know it feels to be a standard in horror films, when the one person who seeks to find a solution appears held back by people who seek to rely on logic and science. It was a classic horror movie device, as Stephanie and Clyde argue while the malevolent force grew much stronger. What I liked was the added surprise when this same evil was somehow accidentally detected through scientific means.
The one complaint I have about the film is that it was a little too short; this was one film that could've benefited if it had a longer runtime. Tzabok was a little underdeveloped as the “Father Merrin” of this film. He seemed to be an interesting character, but the last act felt a little predictable. I felt that the direction lost a little of its own way, as the subtle creepiness and well timed jump scares leading up to its build up was sacrificed for sheer flamboyance. It was so much as a bad thing, but rather something that succumbed to the trappings of visual and sound effects. Ella Wade as the voice of the Dybbuk was especially effective; she was fantastic in the delivery of the demonic voices.
While the direction was able to create the proper mood and atmosphere to drive the film’s scary sequences, none of it would have been effective without the proper performances behind them. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was able to command the film’s significant areas in the screenplay. The actor expressed the proper emotions of desperation, helplessness and fear as his character was developed through the film’s story. I liked the minor backdrop where the plot was set behind a divorce, and Kyra Sedgwick comes out with a good performance to match Morgan’s own portrayal. Natasha Callis acted her heart out, the young actress had the right stuff to portray an innocent being oppressed by an evil. She was creepy and oftentimes sympathetic, you could feel what she was going through.
“The Possession” should’ve been left to its original title. I know a lot of mainstream viewers wouldn’t know what it was, but hey, sometimes research aids in a film’s experience. Despite this, “The Possession” was a capable horror film, it had some rough areas in the script and I thought it had some missed opportunities; which was acceptable since they re-edited the film to fit the PG-13 rating (I eagerly await the R rated cut). Hannah felt more like a ‘filler’ and wasn’t a part of the main characters and I also wished that Stephanie’s new ‘date’ (Grant Show) played a stronger part in the script. These are minor complaints that kept the film from being a strong horror-drama and instead became one of your usual stories about a malevolent force of evil. Still, I enjoyed “The Possession”, it had a strong direction, good visual effects and good acting that I was immersed in the film. Hey, considering the disappointing mainstream horror films that have come out of America, this was one of the good ones. It wasn’t polarizing or alienating, and had a good story to tell. “The Possession” is one of the better commercial horror films of 2012.
Next time, try to avoid buying an antique from a garage sale, ok?
There’s been a rash of exorcism-style films these last few years. Some of them have been good, and, naturally, some of them have been bad. It could be that this trend is little more than an industry going through its creativity cycle, rediscovering some of what produces more authentic scares from yesteryear – that being stories grounded in reality – for audiences who’ve grown accustomed to and thus dismissive of more … more