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Entries in Possession/The [2012] (1)

Thursday
Sep062012

The Possession (2012)

Hebrew-jeebies

More than zombie movies, vampire movies, and torture movies, the horror trend I'm most eager to kiss good-bye is the possessed-kid film. Ever since 2002, when The Ring made nightgown-wearing demon girls into blockbuster icons, I've been inundated with creepy children and the random A/B-listers who play their hapless parents. Right on cue, here comes The Possession with a handful of new tricks meant to keep people like me from tuning out.

Well, it worked. Writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White have created a surprising, touching family drama that just happens to involve a demon. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick play Clyde and Stephanie, a recently divorced couple who struggle through new boundaries and visitation rules with their daughters, Em (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport). Rick is a college basketball coach on the rise; Stephanie has just opened a custom jewelry business and begun seeing a dentist named Brett (Grant Show). Their familial bond isn't broken, but it's just fragile enough for an outside force to cause lots of irrevocable damage.

Enter the dybbuk box: a small, wooden prison for evil spirits created by Jewish Poles in the 1920s. We first encounter it in the home of an old lady who's obviously had enough of the eerie whispers coming from inside. Before she can smash the box to pieces, though, an invisible force fatally throws her around the living room. A little while later, her son holds a garage sale, which just happens to be in Clyde's new neighborhood. Emily is drawn to the box, and for a measly couple of bucks her family becomes the proud owner of a demonic entity looking for a fresh host.

From here, the screenwriters and director Ole Bornedal treat us to every cliche these kinds of movies offer: Em becomes distant, then violent, and carries on conversations with an invisible "friend"; a concerned teacher who gets too close to the mystery of Em's behavior gets horrifically killed; Em begins talking in a deep voice and using her newfound dark powers to torment people she doesn't like; in the climactic battle, Clyde demands (several times) that the demon take him instead. And on and on and on.

Fortunately, this stuff only pops up here and there. Like Snowden and White's underrated sci-fi drama, KnowingThe Possession places complex family dynamics above genre gimmickry. Had the melting-face illusions and CGI moth swarms been left out, we'd still have a heart-wrenching story about dark forces tugging at the remnants of a once very powerful love. For me, the breakfast table scene in which Hannah rambles obliviously about an upcoming talent show (hinting at the same growing self-absorption that led her father to tune out during his marriage) is far more chilling than the scene's more obvious climax, wherein Em stabs Clyde with a fork.

In another instance, the demon tricks Hannah into thinking she sees Clyde slap Em repeatedly across the face. The frustration, hurt, and fear in Morgan's face is authentically that of a parent unable to explain something terrible in the heat of a complicated moment. Morgan and Calis are terrific here, and the film goes a long way in painting a grim metaphor of daddy's little girl not only growing up, but literally growing into a person he doesn't recognize.

In the end, the whole family must come together to save one of their own from the forces of darkness--a rarity in these films; typically, one adult is left to figure things out, while the other spouse is killed off or otherwise absentee.

This is just one of a handful of cool narrative tricks that separates The Possession from its contemporaries. The most obvious is the use of Judaism as the faith of choice in combating evil. These movies are typically all about The Catholic Church, but the filmmakers put a fun twist on the exorcism ritual by involving Tzadok (Matisyahu)--a young rabbi-in-training who goes against his elders' orders and helps Clyde drive out the demon.* Sure, the shaking and the chanting makes some pivotal scenes look a tad ridiculous, but the fact that this religion doesn't get a lot of big-screen play adds a level of intrigue to a climax we've seen a hundred times before.

I also love how White and Snowden handle the requisite Expert in Evil scene. In these movies, the beleaguered hero always seeks out an expert on whatever malevolent force they're facing. Here, Clyde visits a professor at his university named McMannis (Jay Brazeau). The twist is that, while McMannis is well-versed in dybbuk-box lore, he clearly doesn't believe in any of the information he's providing. He just figures the affable, dumb-jock coach has swung by to learn about something cool he picked up at a yard sale. In his kooky nonchalance, McMannis reminded me of the Evil Ed character from Fright Night the first time Charley Brewster asked him about warding off vampires.

The Possession is not a particularly scary movie. Normally, I'd consider that a multi-million-dollar crime in a genre whose defining landmark, arguably, was The Exorcist. This film's pair of sudden-move jumps won't be worthy of discussion two days from now--let alone in forty years. But the performances and (mostly) grounded characters make it worth seeing. The filmmakers know that the real-world emotions parents grapple with every day are far more terrifying than any old devil in a box.

Note: If ever you need proof that most "Based on a True Story" movies are bullshit, do a quick search on The Possession's origin story. There's not a single reference to eBay in this film. Thank God for that.

*This plot point could have been handled better. The high council freaks out when Clyde tells them that he opened the box, and refuses to help him. Tzadok chases Clyde down to tell him that his faith's laws require him to help out if a mortal soul is in danger. Wouldn't the elders have known about this policy? Couldn't they have at least said, "Hey, Tzadok: you know that 'big advancement opportunity' you've been whining about? Go have a look at that box, and we'll talk."