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 special-effects-heavy gore. I tend to believe that there’s something a bit different going on; I think that we – as a society – tend to reach out for a renewal of these spirits-inhabiting-another tales when we’re going through some cultural upheavals. Instead of accepting that Tinseltown drives us, I prefer to think that we tap find these special places all on our own. Then, some clever scriptwriters trap lightning in a bottle, and viola! That same ol’ exorcism is now back in vogue!
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to my last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Clyde Brenek (played by the reliable Jeffrey Dean Morgan) recently separated from his wife, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). When their youngest daughter, Emily (Natasha Calis), begins displaying some weirdly erratic behaviors, they and her school are quick to chalk it all up to the inevitable side effect of a marriage in collapse. However, the girl’s creeping obsession with an ornate, antique wooden box she picked up from a yard sale borders on the insane. As Clyde begins to research more about the item, he realizes he has something very tragic and very unique in his possession: it’s known as a Dibbuk box. It’s meant to contain a dislocated spirit. To his dismay, Em has opened the box, and now the entity is slowly devouring her soul.
Director Ole Bornedal manages to squeeze a bit more life out of the traditional exorcism picture by sticking with mostly classical film techniques – inexorably slow pans and eases and tricks with light and shadow – whereas a more contemporary director would’ve tried to likely incorporate some CGI sequences. There’s nothing big and bold here. This is traditional filmmaking, and it works. By sticking with what’s tried and true, Bornedal elevates the story to that of legitimacy, letting the script from Juliet Snowden and Stiles White effectively breathe in that atmosphere.
Also, it doesn’t hurt matters that the tale heavily straddles some common family issues – dad and mom are divorced, the kids are getting used to the separation, mom has another man in the picture whilst dad is considering relocating elsewhere for work – as these all tend to complement the dynamic of not only a family but also a greater society in flux. That dynamic gives more credibility to an undercurrent that’s unsettling, giving these characters some added depth. It all adds up in creating an environment where a spectral entity could, perhaps, seek out and find residence amongst the weak, so it’s clear that all players have done their homework in legitimizing the stresses.
In fact, most of THE POSSESSION works precisely because it comes across as heavily grounded in real events. (Indeed, the script is based on actual occurrences, though the accompanying documentary – a special feature – gives a much different accounting of events.) The smart script never cheapens the relationships; the production team never resorts to flashy pyrotechnics to get across the frights; and what emerges is a welcome return to the good, old-fashioned, conventional ghost story. There’s evil out there, and it needs one of us in order to be free. It’s all made cohesive through the commitments of a solid cast and crew.
THE POSSESSION (Rated PG-13) is produced by Ghost House Pictures and North Box Productions. DVD distribution is being handled through Lionsgate. As for the technical specs, the film looks and sounds remarkable; there are a few moments when I cranked up the center volume to hear some of the ghost’s whispery dialogue, but, alas, there’s nothing the audience needs to hear specifically. The disc has two separate commentary tracks – the first is from Bornedal, and the second is from scriptwriters Snowden and White. Furthermore, there’s a brief documentary explored the truth behind the fiction, treating viewers to a look at the real Dibbuk Box. Also, there’s an assortment of trailers.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. I didn’t see how THE POSSESSION really brought anything all that new, novel, or unique to the ‘exorcism’ genre, but there’s something to be said for legitimate creepiness in the age of special effects. Still, it’s better than most films of this sort that have come along in quite some time. There are some very solid moments grounding the picture between the players – Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Natasha Calis, especially – that elevate the story to another level. Additionally, there’s a lot of solid camera work that helps work up the tension to palpable levels, though some of the trickery falls predictably thin in the climax. Worth its scares in gold, though.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Lionsgate provided me with a DVD screener copy of THE POSSESSION for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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 … more