When it comes to casting demons from the bodies of innocent youngsters, why should Catholics have all the fun? In William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin stepped right up to the plate when Linda Blair began doing some pretty nasty things with a crucifix. The problem is a little less straightforward – and less overtly symbolic -- in “The Possession”: A young girl starts acting strangely after she picks up an unassumingly sinister-looking tchotchke at a yard sale. The item in question is a Dibbuk Box -- according to Jewish folklore, a cask containing a malevolent spirit that’s just waiting for the right human host to pour itself into – and believe you me, only a shmendrik would try to open it.
Or, perhaps, a curious little girl. In “The Possession” that little girl, Em (Natasha Calis) is still adjusting to the breakup of her parents’ marriage; Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) are themselves still trying to work out the particulars of their divorce, and the atmosphere of unrest is just the sort of place for a restless demon to take root. When Em and her sister, Hannah (Madison Davenport), go to visit their dad on the weekend, the spanking-new house he’s just bought is ghost-free -- in this case, Em brings the ghost with her, inside that box.
It’s a dark wooden thing adorned with mystical symbols, and Clyde can’t open it, not even with all the manly dad tools he has lying around the house. For Em, on the other hand, it springs open easily, but only after she’s alone in her room at night. Inside, she finds an ancient-looking ring set with some kind of coin, a giant tooth and -- well, you really don’t want to know.
The first half of “The Possession” is suitably atmospheric and reasonably creepy. Director Ole Bornedal (who made the 1997 thriller “Nightwatch”) knows that the scariest things are the ones we only half-glimpse, or those we’re made to wait for. (One of the most devious little sequences in “The Possession” involves Em’s investigating the choking sensation in her throat by shining a pen light down there. Never has a uvula looked so foreboding.) It probably doesn’t hurt that Sam Raimi is one of the movie’s producers -- that may account for the picture’s shivery sense of restraint. There’s no real gore here (as long as you’re not too perturbed by the occasional bleeding eye), and there’s no undue sadism (animal lovers should note that no sweet family dogs are sacrificed, even though one of the notable features in Clyde’s new house is a doggy door).
In fact, “The Possession” has a lot going for it, particularly as shot by Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen: He makes the sanitized freshness of suburbia, with its tract houses and buzz-cut front yards, look doleful. And Morgan, with his great basset-hound eyes, is convincing even when he’s dealing with the most gibberishy dialogue, or reading self-seriously from the Old Testament in an attempt to drive the evil out of his sickly, bedridden and suddenly foul-mouthed daughter.
But problems pop up, like cardboard Halloween-house spooks, in the movie’s second half, around the time Clyde realizes something is supernaturally wrong with Em. The casting of reggae and hip-hop artist Matisyahu, as the only Hasid fearless enough to tangle with the diabolical dibbuk, was a miniature stroke of genius: Matisyahu may not be the most skilled actor, but he’s serene and understated, just the kind of guy you’d want around if nasty, clattery insects started flying into and out of your daughter’s mouth. But as the picture winds toward its conclusion, Matisyahu and the rest of the cast fall prey to a host of dorky special effects and even dorkier dialogue -- not to mention a billowing prayer shawl used for dramatic effect -- that undercut the muted chilliness of the movie’s first half. “The Possession,” save for a surprise coda, ends with a bunch of excessively windblown actors and a heap of stiffly recited incantations.
Feh! For this I went to college?