Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Possession / ** (PG-13)

Clyde: Jeffery Dean Morgan
Em: Natasha Calis
Stephanie: Kyra Sedgwick
Hannah: Madison Davenport
Tzadok: Matisyahu

Lionsgate presents a film directed by Ole Bornedal. Written by Juliet Snowden & Stiles White. Inspired by the article “Jinx in a Box” by Leslie Gornstein. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences).

“The Possession” looks like a good horror film. It talks like a good horror film. It has vision. It has style. It’s well acted. Unfortunately, it falls victim to the same pitfall that so many of today’s horror movies suffer from. When all is said and done everything in it serves the shock factor, rather than the shocks serving the story and supporting the horror.

It goes wrong from the opening scene. We hear a strange whispering voice speaking a foreign language before we see anything. Then we are shown an older woman staring at a dark wooden box on her mantle. It seems to be whispering to her. She wants to open it, but she doesn’t. She looks scared of it. She tries to distract herself away from it, but the whispering persists. Finally, she comes at the box with a hammer. She stops before she smashes it. An invisible force attacks her and throws her around the room until she’s incapacitated.

This scene is disturbing, but it gives the entire movie away in about 90 seconds. The scene is designed to disturb the audience rather than draw them into the story. There are elements that could draw us in if this scene were ever referred back to again later in the movie. But it isn’t. A little later a divorcee father purchases the box for his youngest daughter in a yard sale. When things start going wrong for him and his family, why doesn’t he ever seek out the people who sold him the box? Since we learn in the yard sale scene that the woman didn’t die in the attack, why don’t we ever visit her again to gain some knowledge about what she experienced? It’s because the director and writers of this film have seen great horror movies, but they didn’t study them.

Clyde is a college basketball coach, whose career has always dominated his life. He’s adjusting to his divorce, taking his two girls for weekends to his new house in a new and unfinished subdivision. He’s not adjusting so well to his wife’s new beau, who is subtly changing the practices of his old household. Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick, “The Closer”) is in the final process of removing her ex-husband from her daily life. She asks him to stop his e-mail from arriving on her computer. You can tell there’s still love there, but the patience is gone.

Danish director Ole Bornedal (“Night Watch”) handles these details with tact and a good attention to character. Jeffery Dean Morgan (“Watchmen”) plays the defeat and acceptance of Clyde very well. There’s great sadness in the mood of the film. They seem to have filmed all their outdoor scenes on overcast fall days, leaving the production design grey and drab. Dread and depression are the orders for the day. Bornedal handles the interiors with just as much attention to the details of mood. Instead of placing the characters in older interior designs typical of the genre, he relies on the sharp angles, empty spaces, and clean darkness of the new construction of Clyde’s cookie cutter subdivision house. The empty lots awaiting new houses and half completed construction of other houses add to the bleak mood.

Clyde is closest to his youngest daughter, Em (Natasha Calis). His relationship with Hannah (Madison Davenport, “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl”) is typical of a more-absent-than-not father. When Em brings home the box, she begins to change; first by obsessing over the box, then by appearing to become someone else. The initial opening of the box seems to get shuffled over considering what a big deal the screenplay makes out of the fact that it doesn’t appear to be any way to open it. It’s almost as if the director felt he needed to move on to the next segment in the motifs he’s been establishing to deliver his shocks.

Bornedal structures the movie as a series of crescendos, moving from one event involving the box to the next. Each section begins with a directly overhead exterior shot of the neighborhood in which the scene takes place. It’s quite a startling establishing image. Each scene ends in loudness from screaming or yelling or some sort of ambient noise and a musical crescendo in the wonderfully present score by Anton Sanko. Unfortunately, he drops this motif once he gets to the meat of what is going on. An overhead shot when Clyde goes to a Hasidic Jewish community in New York City would’ve been an impressive contrast to the suburban overheads from the rest of the movie.

The handling of the connection to the Jewish religion is one of the more disappointing elements of the movie. It’s easy to compare this film with the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist”, since both movies involve a possession of a young girl and a religious connection to those possessions. This film’s screenplay is inspired by Jewish folklore about a demon called a Dybbuk, which is exorcized in a Jewish ceremony into a box. Clyde goes to New York seeking help and a young Rabbi, played by Jewish rapper Matisyahu, agrees to perform the exorcism. That is about the extent to which the Jewish religion is used by screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (“Knowing”). There are no questions of faith raised. The family attacked by this demon is not Jewish. There is no questioning as to whether the possession is legitimate or not. And where does divorce fit in to all of this? The religious connection is introduced so late in the story, none of these questions could be explored had the filmmakers wanted to.

What “The Exorcist” got correct was that the Catholic religion played a heavy role in its story about a girl who was not Catholic possessed by a demon. It wasn’t so much about the possession as it was about the people involved and the dogma of the religion involved. The demon has goals and a purpose that are not simply to scare the bejeezus out of everybody. By telling a story about real issues, the horror fantasy becomes more effective. “The Possession” is content to simply shock the audience without basing its horror on any real substance. The ideas of a Jewish demon and exorcism are certainly fascinating, but not when the religion could easily be transplanted by any other religion that claims to have its own exorcism ritual. I wanted more than just shock and awe from this move. It’s made with enough skill that a stronger foundation could’ve allowed it to transcend the genre.

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