Silver Screen: The Possession *
Perhaps no scene in horror movies is more standardized and codified than the exorcism sequence. The model, of course, is the 1973 classic The Exorcist. William Friedkin's truly scary movie about a girl losing control of her body during the dawn of women's lib set the standard for casting out devils.
The Exorcist followups largely avoided repeating the climactic casting-out sequence from the original. The sequels wandered into increasingly far-flung territory, with some success, in particular William Peter Blatty's impressively oddball Exorcist III, about a serial killer in a mental institution, and Paul Schrader's moral-horror Exorcist prequel, Dominion.
More than a few flicks have filched The Exorcist's template, however, and in fact there seems to be a spate of them in the last few years. Daniel Stamm's found-footage drama The Last Exorcism (2010) took a semi-novel approach, mashing up the overly familiar genres of possession movies and found-footage horror into an interesting project about the nature of faith and skepticism, but it still relied on its Linda Blair stand-in and the classic casting-out sequence.
The other imitators have been less than graceful, however, from the hokum-filled Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) to abject failures like The Devil Inside and The Rite, which present perfect examples of why the exorcism sequence has lost its power. What made The Exorcist's Regan MacNeil's haunting so unsettling was the inexplicability and awful unpredictability of her behavior. Friedkin's aesthetic audacity and Blair's standout performance made audiences think that just about anything could happen in that cramped bedroom, where priests stood over a little girl trapped in the process of becoming something far more terrifying.
To the jaded, weary audience of today, the exorcism sequence is anything but unpredictable. A nice girl starts acting strange, profane, and animalistic before contorting her body and speaking with the growling voice of another. Some wind blows, the temperature drops, priests stand around and chant a bunch of words as though they're preaching a sermon into a thunderstorm, the end.
The blandly titled and recently released The Possession offers further proof the once-terrifying has become deadly dull. It's a paint-by-numbers movie if ever there was one, competently produced but never for a second veering away from the expected.
The innocent girl to be corrupted by E-V-I-L here is Emma (Natasha Calis), a big-hearted budding vegetarian/peacenik. She and her temperamental older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) live with their overprotective mom (Kyra Sedgwick) and spend weekends with their disorganized but well-meaning father Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Emma guilts pops into buying her an ornate antique wooden box at a yard sale, but after bringing it home she begins to act strangely, and Clyde's new house is plagued by a series of generic supernatural incidents. The box turns out to be a trap for a dybbuk, an evil spirit than Jewish mystics believe can be imprisoned in specially made and blessed compartments. So instead of calling for a Catholic priest, Clyde must seek out a young Hasidic Jewish scholar Tzadok (Matisyahu) to do the chanting and incanting.
That's really the only twist on the formula The Possession has to offer. The movie is based on a brief, mostly scoffing Los Angeles Times article by Leslie Gornstein, “A Jinx In a Box?,” about a supposed dybbuk box that was sold on eBay in 2004. It's easy to see the flash of semi-inspiration the article birthed for screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White-- it provides a perfect hook to give the veneer of newness to an otherwise unmemorable ghost story. Director Ole Bornedal never even bothers to probe much into the potentially intriguing culture of Jewish mysticism, although in fairness that symbology does lack the overtly horrific qualities that have made Catholic iconography a staple of scary movies for decades.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.