Exorcism thriller 'Possession' too tame, familiar

Updated 8/30/2012 12:29 PM
  • Em (Natasha Calis) becomes victimized by a dybbuk, a Jewish demon, in the routine exorcism horror tale "The Possession."

    Em (Natasha Calis) becomes victimized by a dybbuk, a Jewish demon, in the routine exorcism horror tale "The Possession."

The first thing killed in Ole Bornedal's exorcism horror tale "The Possession" is any sense of mystery or suspense.

In the opening scene, an older woman, clearly upset, tries to smash a carved wooden box to pieces with a hammer. But the voices inside the box -- which we can clearly hear -- don't like that, so they psychically turn the poor lady into a human pretzel and smash her head into a table. Hard.

We instantly know the box contains something both evil and powerful, that talks a lot.

By beginning his movie with this cheap, obvious assault, Bornedal, directing from a standard-issue exorcism screenplay, robs his audience of some basic curiosity: what can a simple, talking wooden box do to people?

Well, really hurt them. Or talk them to death.

The rest of "The Possession" -- marketed as "based on a true story" -- recycles the usual silly clichés that filmmakers erroneously believe must be included in all horror movies, such as nobody remembers to turn the lights on before entering a dark and scary room.

Or hospitals suddenly devoid of doctors, nurses, orderlies and patients -- just so main characters can tangle with an evil presence without being bothered by others.

The nightmare begins for basketball coach Clyde Brenek (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) when his daughter Em (Natasha Calis) buys a carved wooden box at a garage sale.

Oh, no!

Pretty soon, Em becomes mesmerized by the box and can't leave it. Then a zillion moths fly into her bedroom and Clarice Starling isn't even around to put it all together.

Clyde and his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) assume that Em and her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) suffer from post-divorce syndrome and are acting out of a need for attention.

Dad begins to suspect the worst when Em stabs him with a fork at the table. That, and her pupils disappear when she looks at the box.

"This wild behavior!" Dad says. "There's something else going on here!"

Ya think?

Turns out the box contains a Jewish demon called a dybbuk, and it intends to take over Em by physically invading her body, then crawling out of it through her mouth.

(The movie's most memorable image involves Em looking down her throat in a mirror, then glimpsing the dybbuk's fingers attempting to tickle her taste buds. Yechhh!)

Desperate, Clyde contacts a New York Hasidic rabbi for help, but the best he can offer is to say, "This must be left to the will of God!"

Fortunately, the rabbi's son Tzadok (the surprisingly charismatic Hasidic rap and raggae star Matisyahu) doesn't want to leave this to the will of God. He agrees to perform a Jewish exorcism to force the dybbuk back into its box.

But he needs one thing: the dybbuk's name.

Clyde has no idea what it could be.

Good thing Tzadok checks the box's lid. There it is, just like an ID tag on a piece of checked luggage.

Bornedal, a Danish filmmaker known for his thriller "Nightwatch," takes the characters in "The Possession" through familiar paces, some too familiar because they mimic William Friedkin's classic "The Exorcist," right down to father Clyde echoing Father Karris' plea to the demon, "Take me instead!"

On the plus side, Anton Sanko's evocative score augments the shocks and scares with braying brass notes and metallic jangly noise that pricks our nerve endings.

"The Possession" is also one of the best photographed horror tales in recent memory, thanks to Dan Laustsen's classically composed widescreen images often arranged in nifty Kubrickian symmetry.

If you intend to see "The Possession" in theaters, try to avoid trailers and TV commercials, because they not only show us the film's previously described money shot, they ruin a key surprise in a movie that needs every surprise it can muster.

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