Ah, good, old-fashioned possession films, ones where a character, usually a young girl, goes from happy and smiling to a series of low growls and mean insults directed at family members. These bone-bending tales have existed for a long time, the most recognizable being The Exorcist (1973), and I find it ironic that one of its best followers is a film simply called The Possession. Perhaps that’s the secret to these types of movies, a simplistic title and the viewer getting what they were promised. That’s a good thing. Whether you believe the marketing that said this film is ‘based on true events,’ or not, the end result is a good film.
The Possession follows a newly divorced dad (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) moving into a new home where he gets to have his daughters over for visits. There’s already a strain on the family. His ex (Kyra Sedgwick) already has a new man, and they both have differing views on parenthood. This is a film that sets up its pins and knocks them down efficiently. Morgan and his two daughters visit a yard sale and the younger one, Em (Natasha Calis), picks out a large wooden box that holds a sinister creature known as a dybbuk, a terrifying mythological being that does, well, what most such creatures do.
The performers take the movie seriously, and therefore, so do we. Calis joins Janet in The Conjuring 2 and Regan in The Exorcist as the best creepy kids on screen. Morgan, who’s capable of a large range of charm, tones it down to a grounded and exhausted man that needs assistance when his daughter starts acting violent and withdrawn. When all other options fail, he heads to a synagogue and meets a rabbi’s son, Tzadok, (Matisyahu), who doesn’t overplay things, but simply sees a family that needs help.
This type of material often does best when it’s focused around relatable experiences that are scary enough on their own; the results of an MRI, a child acting up in class, and the possibility of abusive parents. The movie wisely doesn’t focus as much on blood or animated creatures, and in this case, it truly works. It’s a family tragedy with some jolts.
With spinning overhead shots looking down on grey suburban homes and often drawn-out piano notes, director Ole Bornedal gave a rather refreshing look at exorcisms when this movie was released in 2012. When the dybbuk begins smashing objects and people in equal measure, it’s terrifying. The scary scenes don’t simply fill time or offer themselves up to commercials but build to the conclusion. Even if it’s a conclusion we’ve seen before, I still would think twice about buying an ancient box from a yard sale with a terrified woman screaming at me. Just a thought. If you’re looking for a scare while stuck at home, this is a good one.