It’s hard to tell when a horror film is good anymore because, quite frequently, if you’ve just seen a terrible one, even "so-so" ones seem brilliant by comparison. This may or may not be the case with Lionsgate’s new possession movie called - wait for it - The Possession.
Based on a true story... wait.. let me rephrase that in ironic quotes. "Based on a true story," the film tells the true tale of what happens to one family over the course of 29 days. Unfortunately, the story the film is based on is accessible in many articles (a Los Angeles Times article from 2004 called "Jinx in a Box" by Leslie Gornstein, as well as a recent Entertainment Weekly report on the actual incident, among others.)
Therefore, knowing the facts about a man who bought a haunted "dibukk box" at a yard sale and subsequently had health problems, heard voices coming from it, and a string of bad luck, you’d also know that all of this led him to get rid of the box -- only to find that whoever received the box returned it shortly after. Ultimately, the man had to perform an ancient Jewish ritual himself in order to get the demonic spirit that was released from the box back inside. Allegedly he still has the box and is the only person aside from his son who knows where it is.(In case you were wondering, a dibbuk is a sort-of Jewish Frankenstein, monster, a spirit that was allegedly first summed up by a rabbi in Prague to protect Jews there from relentless persecution.)
The film is directed by Ole Bornedal ("Nightwatch") and written by "It" writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles While (reportedly the scribes of the remakes of both "The Birds" and "Poltergeist"). It spins the true story into a fake one about a newly divorced father, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose youngest daughter Em (Natasha Calis) picks up the box at a local yard sale and immediately begins to experience a string of unusual and disturbing occurrences.
These include disembodied voices, moth attacks, and fingers coming out of her throat. His ex-wife and mother of Em, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgewick), is a healthy-eating modern-day hippie type (she makes jewelry) with a new boyfriend (Grant Show. She is also more than happy to be rid of her ex-, who, she feels, was an absentee dad and husband.
What makes matters worse is the fact that since that darn dibbuk box is at Dad’s house, Stephanie doesn’t encounter Em’s change in behavior and thinks Dad is creating more problems ... until, of course, Em violently beats up a boy at school and starts eating raw meat out of the refrigerator.
As Em’s behavior gets more and more menacing (there are lots of long stares and talks about her new friend who lives in the box), Dad begins to think there is something reeeeally wrong with poor Em. His other daughter Hannah (Madison Davenport) does little more than act like a 14 year old in her reactions to the craziness around her. Ultimately, the family will enlist the help of a Hasidic rabbi’s son, Tzadok (played by Hasidic rap and reggae star Matisyahu). Not surprisingly, the dibbuk hits the fan and all sorts of hell breaks loose.
There are a number of things that work with "The Possession."
One is the cast, which are all good actors. Especially impressive is young Calis as the haunted Em. Her concentration and ease in front of the camera works well in making the proceedings somewhat believable. The direction is slick - maybe overly so - with a few too many quick cuts to black. But what Bornedal does do well is set up a feeling of dread.
I did feel afraid of the box, and it allowed the film to have a general sense of unease. The problem is that it seemed too glossy to be real and the special effects tended to be too special effects-y to be terrifying. While it set up camera shots that had potentially iconic framing to them, they would be followed by CGI moths entering people’s mouths or things moving under people’s skin, which took away from a realism that could have been established.
Other moments were more effective, such as a creepy scene between the possessed Em and her mother where Em’s face gets distorted behind glass bottles. So rather than overdoing the special effect of her face distorting on its own, the props did it for them, which makes it unsettling in a more realistic way.
That said, by the end there’s a lot of inexplicable wind and a gollum-like creature that seemed out of a different movie. (Note to filmmakers: Spirits don’t have bodies. That’s why they are called spirits.) Aside from one loud jump scare, there isn’t anything truly scary here -- the death-knell of a horror film.
Despite that, the film is still fairly entertaining and admirable for trying to establish a mood as well as give a concrete explanation for why the supernatural activity was occurring -- as opposed to the recent "The Apparition," which grasped at any preternatural conceit lying nearby and threw it on screen hoping any of it would stick.
None of it did.
For that reason, "The Possession" is a solid little film that will hold your attention. It just won’t scare the hell out of you.
Perhaps next time, the scarier thing would be to do a movie that takes the facts and actual incidents from the real story and put them on screen. Knowing the events allegedly took place is much scarier than watching an over-the-top fantasy version of the same story.
It’s the same problem the filmmakers had with "The Amityville Horror" remake. Whether anyone believes the story or not, there is a source material that stands on its own and scared the crap out of generations of people. Adding backstories about Indian burial grounds and secret rooms in the house took away from the horror of the (allegedly) true account.
Let this be a lesson to Hollywood: Sometimes the facts are scarier than what you try to dream up. Because your dreams can often be, well, kind of lame.