The Possession (2012)

JUNE 12, 2012


One of my colleagues recently claimed that there is no reason to do exorcism movies anymore, because they’ll never top Exorcist. I vehemently disagreed, but he later clarified that he meant it was a limited genre, unlike say a slasher where even though Halloween will never be topped, there’s enough room to work with for others to do their own thing. Ironically, he was with me at this advance screening of The Possession, and he liked it more than most others, so go figure.

But he’s not being a hypocrite, he was actually just proven wrong, as the Exorcist similarities are pretty slim (basically, a possessed girl and, yes, an exorcism scene near the end). Most of the focus is on the girl’s father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who is separated from the mom (Kyra Sedgwick) and only gets the kids on the weekend. So he sees the gradual changes in the girl more easily than the mom, who’s with her every day. Unlike Regan, she doesn’t just start ramming crucifixes inside her and swearing; she just slowly gets more withdrawn from the rest of the world. Actress Natasha Calis is quite good, doing a lot of the work with just her eyes until the 3rd act, when FX start to take over – I trust we will be seeing more of her.

The source of the possession is a Dibbuk Box (which served as the film’s original title), which contains teeth and hair and other odd things, and has housed a vengeful spirit until Calis opened it. The box stems from Jewish folklore, and thus like the inferior The Unborn, rabbis are consulted instead of collar-wearing priests. Here the movie stumbles a bit; when Morgan is told who he needs to talk to, he drives to a Jewish community in Brooklyn and begins wandering around looking for his contact. After a few seconds, an alarm of some sort goes off and everyone instantly clears the street, except for the guy he was looking for. Not only does he not explain why the guy didn’t join the others, the (I’m assuming religious) act itself is never clarified. It’s not like it’s important to the plot, but it draws attention to the fact that the movie occasionally feels like it was reworked some.

And that’s not the only example. A major character’s fate is left unresolved, and there’s an early bit involving an “intruder” that they never follow up on – he assumes it’s a raccoon but we don’t see anything, just a doggy door flapping, as if it might have actually been the ghost. There’s even a followup of Morgan nailing the door shut, but it, the raccoon, or anything else related to this scene is never mentioned again. Ditto the moths that have infested a room – he calls in an exterminator, but we never get those results, like “I couldn’t find any moths…” DUN DUN DUN! These scenes all work fine in and of themselves, but there’s not a lot to connect them together. And if anyone can explain the logistics behind the “I’m getting your email” stuff, I’d love to hear it. Morgan sits at his wife’s computer, opens up an old email at random, deletes the attachment, and then says “OK, you shouldn’t get my emails anymore”. Huh? Granted, it doesn't work, but what is the point of this? To make our hero look incompetent?

But it works as a nice blend of possession and “broken family comes together” tale, fully embracing its PG-13 rating with low-key (but trailer-ready) scares and trading gory FX for a stronger emphasis on character and family dynamics. Morgan is an easy to root for everyman, and his ex’s new boyfriend is so overly cheesy, so his little moments of victory over the guy (like wearing his shoes inside the house, which the new guy protests) work like gangbusters. And it helps that the couple broke up for the usual “we just drifted apart” reasons, instead of an affair or something that would instantly have us siding with one over the other. Likewise, they still get along quite well; they make little remarks here and there, but it’s cordial, and you never doubt that they still have affection for each other.

It’s also well directed by Ole Bornedal, who previously impressed with The Substitute (which presumably led to this job, as that was a foreign film acquired by Ghost House/Sam Raimi, who produced this one). I wasn’t crazy about his penchant for ending scare scenes with a sudden cut to black (always with the same low note of the score accompanying it), but otherwise he squeezes lots of blood from the stone that is the rather ho-hum locales. I particularly liked the off-kilter establishing shots of the house, not centered like you’d expect, but off to the right in the middle of a new housing development where the houses all look the same. He also knows when to hold back; there’s a great scene where Sedgwick discovers her daughter devouring meat (she’s a vegetarian), and when she confronts her the girl hides, various kitchen items blocking our view of her face and letting our imagination run wild.

So like my pal was getting at, it’s hard to forget about William Friedkin’s masterpiece when watching these sort of movies, so kudos to Bornedal and co. for mostly pulling it off. Sure, there are better possession films, but there are many more that aren’t as good, and the script’s problems can be explained without resorting to a defense of “Blatty did it better”. Like Emily Rose, it’s an adult-centric possession movie that intelligent teens can enjoy, and any movie that has John Winchester battling ghosts is automatically worth a look.

What say you?


  1. I'm usually the one saying exactly what your colleague said, but will still probably give this one a try this weekend.

  2. I'm not sure that "Exorcism films" is really even a genre of horror given that there really aren't all that many of them. Even you just define the genre as "Possession" which I think is far more accurate. That allows for film like (Spoiler?) Insidious to be included.

    Your friend's comment is a little like saying that they should never do another Ghostbusting movie because it will never be better than Ghostbusters. An archetypical, sometimes imitated classic, yes. A film genre? Not as much.

  3. I saw this flick last weekend and yes, there are plot holes but overall, I liked it. The actors are good and the scares were good, for the most part. Nothing particularly memorable about it but since there have been virtually no horror movies for what seems months now, it's certainly much better than nothing.

  4. BC -- The Hasids were probably all in their own neighborhood and we find out later that it's Shabbos (remember BIG LEBOWSKI, the Jewish day of rest). So if it's officially sundown on Friday, they would all have to get where they needed to be to start praying. (They literally ring a "shabbos siren" to let everyone know to get to shul.)

    I assumed that Matisyahu told him exactly where to meet him (on that particular staircase) and seeing that he isn't as intensely devout as all of the others about getting to shul is basically a not-so-subtle way of saying that he's something of a progressive loner in the community. (He mentions after the scene where the rabbis reject him that he'll go and help Jeffrey Dean Morgan, citing "pikuach nefesh" -- if it means you can save someone's life, you can disregard the restrictions of Shabbos.)

  5. Hi there! I have to respectfully disagree that this movie had effective scares - I finally got it from Netflix a couple of days ago, and was pretty disappointed. The plot holes were large enough to distract me from the story (so, could the thing kill from inside the box? did the box have to be opened? if not, why bother possessing the little girl? what the hell happened to the boyfriend? etc). I did appreciate the performances from the young actresses, though - they did a great job. As always, I appreciate your reviews!


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