I’ve been looking forward to seeing ‘The Possession’ for quite some time, ever since I stumbled across the ‘true’ story of the dibbuk box and then found out it was being adapted into a movie.

And, yes, there’s a tag at the beginning of the film that confirms ‘The Possession’ is still ‘based on a true story’.

It’s just a shame they didn’t choose the story I’d heard, because the supposedly ‘real’ events behind the dibbuk box are a lot creepier than the version that unfolded on screen.

Having said that, I do understand why the facts were thrown out in favour of the standard Hollywood cookie-cutter set-up involving an amicably divorced couple (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick) who share happy custody of their two daughters (Natasha Calis and Madison Davenport) until the youngest one finds a strange antique box in a yard sale and – who’d have thunk it? – gets herself possessed by the dibbuk that lives inside.

For the purposes of ‘The Possession’, the dibbuk is a malevolent Jewish demon that likes to inhabit the body of a young and innocent host, growing inside until it completely takes the victim over and is free to enjoy the pleasures and sins of the mortal world.possession_retail_dvd3d_final

Which, let’s face it, is not a million miles away from every possession movie ever made. Of course demons want to corrupt the young and the pure, any demon who’d prefer to hijack the old and degenerate would obviously suffer from extremely low self-esteem.

The thing is… and I promise this is the last time (probably) that I’ll invoke any details about the ‘true’ story the movie didn’t tell… some people believe that the ‘real’ dibbuk, the one that lives in a wine casket somebody bought at an estate sale and then watched helplessly as his life got dismantled, might be some kind of Holocaust spirit with a mission to complete that’s related to the horrific treatment of the Jewish people in the Nazi death camps. That’s one theory I’ve heard anyway. ‘Google’ it and I know you’ll find plenty of others. But can you see why I was hoping for so much more from this movie? Isn’t that a better premise than rehashing some third rate variation of ‘The Exorcist’? And when you consider how long this project has been in development and how many screenwriters have been attached and then spat out again… Oy vey! It’s enough to make me want to throw my yarmulke out the window…

End of rant.

So, the youngest daughter buys the box and takes it back to the great new house where their father lives. Actually, I liked the approach Director Ole Bornedal used here, giving us an aerial view of the house and its surroundings and suggesting that the evil dibbuk was just floating there above the rooftops, waiting to pounce. Although, of course, that’s probably not what he meant to suggest because that would make no sense. Because the dibbuk’s trapped in the box.

But the aerial shot did remind me of the opening of Bernard Rose’s ‘Candyman’ (1992). And while we’re on the subject of other things this movie reminded me of, I couldn’t shift the thought that Jeffrey Dean Morgan looks uncannily like Javier Bardem and how, even though they’re not telling the story I wanted them to, I’d much rather be watching this than sitting through ‘Eat Pray Love’ (2010) again.

Back to the review. But you’ll have guessed the rest already.

The sweet girl with the dibbuk box starts exhibiting some not-so-sweet tendencies, including jamming a fork through the back of her father’s hand when he asks her not to eat so fast at the dinner table. And there are plenty of flying bugs, because this kind of movie is never complete without big scary insects with wings. And there’s a visually quite arresting moment, which is already given away in the trailer, when the little girl points a flashlight down her throat and discovers a couple of fingers inching their way up her gullet and past her tonsils… some very well done, and quite painful-looking, ‘invisible force throws people around’ sequences (the opening scene is particularly special)… and, let’s just say that when I had an MRI scan a few years ago I’m glad they didn’t find in me what they find inside her.

And if you’ve ever had that dream when all your teeth fall out and then woken up in a panic checking frantically that your teeth are still in your mouth… there’s a moment in here for you too!

Cue the terrified father finally putting the pieces together, the slow-on-the-uptake mother (complete with smug new boyfriend… nothing good’s going to happen to him) finally realising what’s going on … and replace The Exorcist’s Father Karras with a gangly Jewish occult expert (Matisyahu) who is admirably eager to step up to the plate when his Rabbi father and everyone else at the synagogue wants to run away fast but, somehow, wouldn’t fill me with much confidence if I was in a similar situation.

The finale is contrived but, thanks to a total blackout when the only light available to the father is supplied by the tiny torch on his iphone and he suddenly finds himself standing in the middle of a morgue with his now completely possessed daughter hiding in the darkness somewhere around him… yep… that put me on edge more than a little bit. Credit where credit’s due.

I enjoyed ‘The Possession’. It didn’t change my opinion that when a major studio makes a horror movie it won’t be anything truly visceral because they’ll always find a way to dull the edge (although ‘Universal’s’ involvement in ‘American Mary’ has thrown that argument out the window) but the action zips along, the performances are great, the script was unexceptional and unsurprising but it hit all the story beats that make this kind of movie fun, and the use of CGI – although unnecessary – didn’t bother me as much as it usually does.

And, if you caught this film at the cinema and fancied sitting through it again, the DVD is proudly billed as the ‘uncut edition’, promising previously unseen footage.

And, although I had my misgivings about Sam Raimi’s involvement (I love his films, but he manages to slide in too much crazy humour for my taste – the otherwise pretty cool ‘Drag Me To Hell’ was completely ruined by the talking goat scene) I was pleased to see that he showed some restraint and none of ‘The Possession’ was played for laughs.

Plus, keep a watch on Natasha Calis as Em. If her performance hadn’t worked it would have blown the film apart entirely. She deserves a lot of credit for making ‘The Possession’ the flawed-but-creditable horror movie that it is.

 

Extras: Commentaries from both director Ole Bornedal and screenwriters Juliet Snowdon and Stiles White, along with an interesting 12-minute documentary on the real dibbuk box story that inspired the film

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.