Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: The Possession (2012)

The Possession (2012)
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(Originally posted here)

Pretty much what I expected from a PG-13 release in the middle of the late summer doldrums. Not a particularly great film by any stretch of the imagination, but better made than a lot of the demonic possession movies that have cropped up as of late. (Here's to you, The Devil Inside.) It's got a strong cast, an interesting twist on the possession story (even if it doesn't play out much differently than most such movies do), and an old-school reliance on tension instead of constant quick cuts and cheap scares, though some of the supporting characters did feel under-written at times, and the final twist felt cheap and tacked-on.

First off, there's this film's gimmick. Ever since The Exorcist, most films about demonic possession have been rooted in some form of Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic, tradition. It makes sense, really; there's a huge body of literature surrounding the Catholic exorcism ritual, most American viewers are at least nominally Christian (meaning that the subject matter hits close to home), and the spiritual battle between a man of God and a demon from Hell for control of a (usually young and female) soul makes for a thrilling watch without much need for flashy special effects. The Possession, however, eschews much of that and instead draws from Jewish folklore, using the legend surrounding the "dibbuk box" as the inspiration for its allegedly "true story."* On paper, it's a nice change of pace from the Christian rituals that have been done to death by this point, but in practice, it's mostly the same story as The Exorcist with the Catholic priest replaced with a Hasidic rabbi. If you've seen any other possession movie (save for Paranormal Activity), you know how this is gonna play out.

While there is a real dibbuk box that has allegedly caused some bad juju to its owners, none of the stories quite play out like this. As always, "based on a true story" is Hollywood-speak for "based on this cool story I heard from a friend of a friend."

The main cast helps to elevate this film above its competition. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Natasha Calis play the father Clyde and daughter Emily to perfection, alienated from one another by the former's job as a basketball coach and his divorce from his wife Stephanie, played by Kyra Sedgwick. Stephanie takes on the obligatory "skeptic" role seen in many a religious horror film, but here she's given some justification: Clyde's been an admittedly poor father, and she thinks that he's using the dibbuk box as an excuse to cover for his latest BS. The arc of the film is as much about Clyde trying to reconnect with his daughter as it is about saving her from the demon, and on both fronts Morgan carries the film admirably all the way through to the end. Calis, meanwhile, may just be the next Chloe Moretz or Isabelle Fuhrman going by her performance as Emily, pulling off both vulnerable and creepy. The film was strongest when Morgan and Calis were on screen together, especially in a downright chilling scene near the end that reminded me of Silent Hill at its best. I also got a kick out of the casting of the Orthodox Jewish reggae musician Matisyahu as the rabbi exorcist Tzadok, even if he never shows up until the last act. Most of the supporting cast, however, seemed more like props or plot devices than anything else, many of them serving only to get killed or maimed by the evil spirit.

Finally, there's the direction by Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal, maker of Nightwatch and The Substitute. Many horror directors nowadays seem to have been recruited from the music video school of filmmaking, engaging in what some have called "chaos cinema"shocking viewers with quick cuts and seemingly non-stop action -- a style that's been wearing on me these past few years.** Bornedal's direction here is nothing like that. Indeed, between the creepy introduction and the moment when Emily picks up the dibbuk box around twenty minutes in, there isn't a scare in sight, playing out more like a family drama than a horror movie while building up its characters. The rest of the film saves its frights for its biggest moments rather than constantly trying to keep us jumping out of our seats. This film proves that "slick and glossy" doesn't have to mean lowest-common-denominator garbage.

** Case in point: The Expendables 2. I'd have enjoyed that movie a lot more if I'd actually been able to tell what the hell was going on in the action scenes.

There were only two points in the film that really rubbed me the wrong way. The first was how they handled the dentist/new boyfriend character, Brett. He features pretty heavily in the first act, and what eventually happens to him was rather ironic given his profession, but he just vanishes near the end of the film, with no word as to his fate. Not even his girlfriend Stephanie brings up what had happened. The second point was at the very end. After wrapping up the story and tying up seemingly all loose ends, the film decided to go out on a sudden twist that felt very tacked-on. It seemed almost like Lionsgate was setting this film up as their next franchise (and possibly a competitor to Paranormal Activity) now that Saw has been dead and buried for a couple of years. Smooth, Lionsgate. Lastly, and this is more of a knock against the marketing department than the film itself, but the trailers seemed to have spoiled a lot of this film's best moments. People, please stop doing that.

Score: 3 out of 5

If you've seen one exorcism movie, you've seen 'em all, but this one is well-made enough to be worth a matinee, riding on the strength of a great cast and solid direction and frights that help it overcome its shakier moments. Proof that Hollywood hasn't forgotten how to make a solid horror movie.

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