CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE POSSESSION (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A flea market spread out on a front lawn. L.L. SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA are among the many customers)
LS: Wow! Look at that. A velvet painting of Bela Lugosi.
MA: There’s a lot of neat stuff here.
LS (lifts up a large, rounded, green object): I wonder what this is.
FLEA MARKET MAN: That there is a toenail clipping from Godzilla himself.
MA: Wow. A jar that says “Abnormal Brain!”
LS: You better buy that before someone else does.
FLEA MARKET MAN: Pssst, you two look like knowledgeable gents. How about taking a look at this little beauty (takes out a large wooden box with ancient writing on it)
LS: That’s pretty fancy.
MA: How much is it?
FLEA MARKET GUY: For you guys, I’ll give it to you for ten bucks. You won’t find another one like it. It’s called a Dybbuk box and it’s home for an ancient Hebrew demon.
LS: That would make a great addition to my “demons of the world” collection.
MA: The other Knife Fighters will be so envious!
(LS hands over the money and the man gladly gives them the box)
FLEA MARKET GUY: Just remember, I don’t give refunds.
(LS and MA walk away with their load of loot)
LS: I can’t believe we got this cool demon box.
MA: It’s a Dybbuk box.
MA: Now that we’ve got these goodies, how about we review the new movie for this weekend, THE POSSESSION?
LS: Sure. You want me to start this one?
MA: Be my guest.
LS: In some ways, THE POSSESSION is yet another bland August horror movie. It seems like a lot of these mediocre movies are locked away until the later weeks of summer. Last week, we saw the amazingly flavorless THE APPARITION, featuring a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY rip-off with no scares. This week, we get an EXORCIST rip-off with no scares. Lucky us!
However, to be honest, THE POSSESSION is slightly above average for these kinds of films.
MA: And appropriately enough, we just talked about August turkeys in last week’s “Quick Cuts” column.
But I wouldn’t say this one had no scares. It had some. They just weren’t as intense as they needed to be, which is more that can be said for last week’s turkey, THE APPARITION.
LS: I’ll agree with you that THE POSSESSION is definitely better than THE APPARITION. At least THE POSSESSION tries to be a heartfelt take on the sadness of divorce…
MA: Which I found detrimental to the story, since I’ve seen several horror movies in recent years with similar plots, the divorced family in a haunted house setting, where the children, vulnerable because of their parents’ separation, make easy targets for the ghosties, while the now separated parent, usually the dad, has to handle this all on his own, or at least mostly on his own. Last year’s DON”T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK had a similar plot.
LS: Yep, nothing all that new here. But it’s well-done for the most part.
Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a high school basketball coach, is trying to deal with life after his divorce with Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). Not only does he have to deal with only seeing his two daughters, Em (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport), on the weekends, but he has to reconcile himself with the fact that his ex-wife has a new boyfriend, Brett (Grant Show – anyone remember him from the original Melrose Place?). During their visits, there’s a sadness that hovers over Clyde and the kids, who have clearly been affected by the split. Clyde’s life, meanwhile, is in flux, as he just bought a new house of his own, and is seriously considering a new job in North Carolina, which would involve moving yet again.
MA: I have to admit, I did like these scenes. They were well acted, and so the movie definitely drew me into liking its characters.
LS: Yes, the movie starts out pretty good.
One weekend, he brings the girls to a flea market, where Em finds a strange wooden box with Hebrew lettering engraved on it. Em asks if she can have it, and her father buys it for her. From then on, Em’s behavior gets stranger and stranger as her relationship with the box threatens to engulf her life. Turns out it’s a box holding a Jewish demon called a Dybbuk. The entity is slowly possessing Em, but it’s a long process that involves the girl going through continual changes, including her ingesting lots of living moths (!) and talking to a mysterious “woman” who no one can see.
When things start to get downright disturbing, Clyde goes to see a a Jewish mystic named Tzadok (the rapper Matisyahu) whose father is a revered rabbi in a Hasidic community. The rabbis won’t touch the box, but Tzadok agrees to go back with Clyde to see Em and try to remove the curse of the demon from her.
What follows are scenes in a hospital where an exorcism is attempted, involving Tzadok, Clyde, the two girls, and even Clyde’s ex-wife Stephanie. Will Em be saved from this evil being? You’ll have to see the movie to find out.
MA: And of course if you’ve seen your share of exorcism movies, you already know what happens.
(A priest runs in holding a Bible)
PRIEST: The power of Christ compels you!
LS: Oh no, not that old chestnut again!
MA: Actually, this is a Jewish demon, and so it’s rabbis doing the exorcising.
PRIEST: Damn!— I mean, darn. Sorry about that. (Exits)
(Rabbi enters and begins lifting weights.)
MA: Excuse me. I said rabbis exorcising, not exercising!
RABBI: What? I can’t exercise just because I’m a rabbi?
MA: No, it’s not that at all. You can exercise all you want. Just not here.
LS: Yeah, we’re trying to review a movie here.
RABBI: Well, I’m trying to exercise here. (goes back to lifting weights)
MA: Let’s just ignore him.
LS: Sure. The idea of a Jewish demon is very interesting, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a movie about a Dybbuk. The last time we saw one of these critters was in 2009’s THE UNBORN, and this time around, I had the same problem as I had with that movie. The idea of a Dybbuk is interesting. But the movie, unfortunately, isn’t very good.
RABBI: Dybbuk? (runs away screaming).
LS: I should have said that earlier!
MA: But I did think that the story of the Dybbuk was a plus for this movie. Sure, it’s not original, and you’re right, we saw it in THE UNBORN, but it’s still rather refreshing and a nice departure from the more traditional Catholic exorcism plots.
LS: I didn’t mean to imply there were tons of movies about Dybbuks. It’s just interesting that there have been two in the past five years. It’s an interesting concept. It’s just too bad the movies about them aren’t better.
First off, the pacing in THE POSSESSION is just too slow. Things happen at a snail’s pace, and things don’t really get out of control until the very end, where it becomes a fairly standard exorcism film, which is a letdown.
MA: I didn’t mind the pacing. As I said, I bought into the early scenes with Clyde trying to make things work with his daughters, and the scares, while subtle, were enough to satisfy me early on.
LS: Scares? What scares? There are hardly any scares! A scene at the very beginning, where a woman is beaten by the invisible Dybbuk when she tries to nail the box shut (it’s her belongings that end up in that flea market) is scarier than most of what comes after it (and it’s not that scary).
MA: True, but it’s better than anything we saw in last week’s THE APPARITION! I also liked the scene where young Em is looking into her mouth in the mirror and sees the tiny fingers jut out of her throat. It was quick, but it was cool.
LS: Too bad they gave that image away in the trailer. It would have been better if it had been a surprise.
MA: It also helped that I saw this one with a very wimpy audience. They were screaming at everything!
LS: I had one of those audiences, too. The loud, outspoken kind, like when I go see a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movie. Sometimes, these can be fun, but this time around, the audience didn’t really add much to the movie; they were just annoying.
MA: My audience seemed to be made up of lots of high school and college age students on dates. I guess it’s a good date movie.
LS: Because THE POSSESSION isn’t that scary, the audience eventually just started laughing at “horror” scenes and making dumb jokes, which I could have done without.
But the slow pacing isn’t all bad. It actually gives the movie time to flesh out the characters. You do grow to know and care about this family, and Clyde is easy to sympathize with.
MA: I agree.
LS: You also care about the girls, especially Em, who starts out very sweet and clearly has no idea what’s happening to her. But this doesn’t make the movie any scarier.
MA: I disagree.
LS: You disagree that you start to care about the kids?
MA: No, I disagree that caring about the characters makes the movie less scary.
First off, I have to say since we’re talking about Em, that hands down, I thought the best thing about THE POSSESSION was the performance by young Natasha Calis as Em. This kid is amazing! The expressions she made, the emotions she conveyed, it was like watching an adult. I was really impressed by her.
LS: Yes, I agree with that, but…
MA: Getting back to the scary part, you’re right, Em starts out so sweet, but when things start happening to her, that’s when Calis’s performance really takes off, and I found her, this sweet little girl, creepy! And I’m not talking about later on in the movie when she obviously is wearing scary make-up, but earlier, when she’s upset or angry, she’s got the best evil expressions. I thought she was terrific.
LS: I agree with that, too, but…
MA: There’s also a scene early on where she’s talking to her older sister, and her sister notices she’s looking strange and asks if she’s all right, and she answers that she just doesn’t feel like herself. The way she says that line, it’s simple, subtle, but very genuine, and just enough to get under your skin.
LS: Yeah, that scene worked. But then you have the scene where Em “attacks” Stephanie’s boyfriend, Brett, and there’s this sudden wind and she has weird make-up on, and she’s standing there with a strange expression. That’s one of the scenes the audience I was with starting laughing out loud at. It was just so cliché. So for everything good in this movie, there’s something else that ruins the mood.
MA: Yeah, that was a lousy scene. No argument from me there.
For the most part, though, I thought THE POSESSION did “subtle” very well, which is a good thing, because it’s certainly not an in-your-face intense horror movie. I read that it was originally going to be Rated R but was edited down to a PG-13 rating, no doubt because someone must have thought it would make the movie more profitable. I’m not necessarily arguing for an R rating, but this movie would have benefited from some more intensity.
LS: I actually would have preferred to see the uncut, R version.
The acting, overall, is pretty good. You might remember Jeffrey Dean Morgan as “The Comedian” from the exceptional superhero movie, WATCHMEN (2009). He was great in that movie, and he shows here that he can play the lead in a film, something Ashley Greene showed us in last week’s THE APPARITION—which got me thinking, maybe these movies are just glorified screen tests for potential lead actors.
MA: Yep. I enjoyed Morgan a lot here.
LS: Kyra Sedgwick is a pro and is probably best known these days for her role as Deputy Chief of Police Brenda Leigh Johnson on the TNT channel series THE CLOSER. The kids are also very good, especially Natasha Calis as Em, as we mentioned, who makes the transformation her character is going through fairly believable.
MA: I already said my piece about Calis. She’s the best part of this movie, but I also enjoyed Madison Davenport as her older sister Hannah, and like you said, Sedgwick was also very good as the mom, Stephanie. I did find her character annoying at first, but she grew on me as the movie went along.
LS: I was also impressed with Matisyahu in his first role in a feature film.
MA: I liked him, too. I thought he added some humor which the film needed.
LS: Danish director Ole Bornedal does a decent job, but the script by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White just doesn’t generate much in the way of scares. These are interesting characters, and the concept of the Dybbuk is interesting. So why is the movie so mediocre? I’d have to point to the weak script for that one. It simply takes a good idea and drops the ball. I wanted to like this one more, but I just can’t muster up much in the way of enthusiasm for the overall film.
MA: I liked it a tad more than you, and I also liked the script more than you did.
While hardly original, THE POSSESSION has enough going for it to make it work. While it doesn’t have a “name” cast, it does have an excellent cast. The four main leads in this movie, the parents and the two kids, are really good, and their performances help lift this movie to a level that at least makes it decent. In other words, I wouldn’t include THE POSSESSION on a list of August turkeys, and the cast is a major reason why.
LS: Which is why I said this was better than the usual August release.
MA: On the other hand, I thought the movie faltered during its last act, as things seemed rushed near the end, which unfortunately, is just another traditional exorcism sequence, albeit from a Jewish perspective, and even rips off a line “Take me!’ from THE EXORCIST. It’s a lackluster conclusion that is several notches below what comes before it.
LS: I agree. If it had maintained the same level of quality throughout, and given the horror aspects as much care and development as the dramatic ones, this would have been a much better movie.
MA: Director Ole Bornedal does an okay job. There are some neat scary images, like the aforementioned hand inside Em’s throat, and the CAT scan image of the demon inside Em’s body, but as you’ve been saying, he drops the ball when it comes to delivering the heavy hitting scares.
I thought the scenes where the teacher is murdered and where the boyfriend is attacked were both lame, and the scene where Clyde has to rescue Em from a room full of moths unconvincing. The moths looked fake.
But I actually liked the script by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, up to a point anyway. These are the same two writers who wrote the horrible movie BOOGEYMAN (2005), and THE POSESSION is a much better movie than BOOGEYMAN.
LS: It certainly is a step up.
MA: I liked the characters they created, and I thought they did a good job writing a story about characters I cared about. I really felt for Clyde, and I felt his frustration about not being able to make things work with his daughters, even before the ghostly stuff started happening, and once it did, I thought the story got that much better.
But I agree with you that this movie would have been much better had it been scarier. And that’s certainly one reason why I didn’t love this one.
Another reason is that there are a lot of loose ends in this story. After Stephanie’s boyfriend is attacked, he drives away and then just disappears. What happened to him? Did he die? And why doesn’t Stephanie seem to care? She doesn’t mention him again. Granted, all the exorcism stuff is happening at this point, but that’s what I mean by things being rushed near the end. We don’t even hear one line about how Stephanie feels about this.
LS: Yeah, his disappearance after that scene is just sloppy. It’s like “We don’t need this character anymore, let’s just forget about him now.”
MA: And the scene in the hospital, where do all the doctors go? After we see the shocking test results, the image of the demon inside Em, we see her family’s reaction, but what about the doctors? Did they see it? How do they explain it? We don’t know because they just sort of disappear.
LS: Well, the family sneaks Em down to the basement where the physical therapy room is. So I guess they’d be undisturbed down there. But no one hears Em’s screaming at all? I wasn’t sure if I bought that. And yeah, we don’t get to see the doctors react to that crazy X-ray image of the demon inside Em, and we don’t find out what they think is going on.
MA: And no one notices them stealing Em away. She’s obviously a patient there, and yet there’s no one around to even say “Hey, where are you taking that girl?”
LS: Well, they are purposely sneaking around to avoid detection…
MA: This sloppiness all happens towards the end, which is a major reason why I thought the ending wasn’t as good as the earlier bits. Plus the exorcism scenes were nothing we haven’t seen before. Too bad, because a stronger ending would have really helped this movie.
So, at the end of the day, I found THE POSSESSION to be an enjoyable little horror movie that does the subtle things well, but forgets to finish the job with the real scares. I expected worse, would have liked better, but eventually found myself liking this one. At the very least, I wouldn’t throw this one into the scrap heap with other August turkeys.
I give it two and a half knives.
LS: I give it two and a half knives as well. There were some good things in this movie, but not enough of them.
MA: So, let’s open the box and see what kind of a Dybbuk we got.
(LS & MA both eagerly begin the challenging work of opening the box, which does not appear to have any seams)
LS: I hope it’s not one of those silly old lady Dybbuks!
MA: Maybe it’ll be a Hammer Film Dybbuk!
LS: What the hell is a Hammer Film Dybbuk?
MA: Dunno, but I bet it would be cool!
LS: It’s almost opened— I’m hoping for a bustin boob babe Dybbuk!
MA: Or better, yet, a $100,000-buck!
(They open box, and they both groan. LS lifts out a pair of 3D glasses.)
LS: Give me a break! Of all the haunted boxes in the world, we have to find a 3D Dybbuk!
MA (lifts note out of box): What’s this say? (reads) Please deposit an additional $5.00, and don’t forget to recycle your 3D glasses when you’re done.” (groans).
LS: Rip-off! (slams box shut) That damn Flear Market Guy!
Oh well, let’s grab some beers.
MA: Now you’re talking.
(LS & MA exit, leaving box behind.)
VOICE FROM BOX: Hey, someone bring me back a cold one!…or else!!
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives THE POSSESSION ~ two and a half knives!
LL Soares gives THE POSSESSION ~ two and a half knives!