The Possession (2012)
“The Possession” is yet another in a long line of films about demonic possession. The “hook” for this movie is unlike “The Last Exorcism” or “Exorcismus” this movie is based on a dibbuk, an evil spirit that possesses the living according to Judaism. In addition, the movie claims to be based on a true story.
First let’s deal with the true story claim. This story is no more true than if I told you barely survived a savage attack by a banana this morning. In reality, I slipped while holding a banana, so yes, a banana was involved but that’s where the “truth” of my account ends. The MPAA does not hold films that claim to be true to any standard, so I could totally film my banana attack and say “based on a true story.” Understanding this helps explain how a story about a man who knowingly bought a “haunted” wine casket ( because when you’re a spirit you don’t really need a whole house just a nice full bodied cabernet) can transform itself into a tale about a divorced father who accidentally purchases a singing box that possess his daughter and still maintain this is even remotely based on a true story. Jason Haxton, the author of the Dibbuk Box, claims various health problems, phantom smells, and nightmares accompanied the box. (For more information about Haxton’s experiences, you can read about it here.) The movie features a young girl who proceeds to swallow moths, go into trances, and stab her father with a fork.
So the film is NOT true. Even the “true” account written by Haxton sounds like a hoax, Why? Because I actually researched dybbuks for a story I wrote in grad school. (Please note: Haxton spells it dibbuk, but all the sources I consulted spelled it dybbuk.) I’ve never heard of a dybbuk focusing on an object, nevermind a wine casket. Its not like every time my father sent me to get the Manischevitz he had to add “And be sure not to accidentally unleash an unholy evil while you’re at it.” As far as I know, dybbuks manifest within A PERSON not by pretending to be a jack in the box. But it’s ok if it’s a hoax because Amityville was a hoax, and the original film was still scary. I don’t watch horror films for truth. I watch horror films to be scared.
First let’s address the writing provided by Juliet Snowden (Boogeyman and Knowing) and Stiles White (Boogeyman and Knowing) because it is so mind numbingly boring. The movie featured cliched gems like “She’s not my little girl anymore. It’s this thing.”, “She’s not your daughter anymore” and “I don’t feel like me.” I defy you to find me a teenage girl who hasn’t said something like “I don’t feel like me.” Often I don’t feel like me, but that doesn’t mean I’m possessed. (OR DOES IT?!) My favorite line was from the Hassidic exorcist who utters “I hate hospitals. People die here.” Thank you for that astute observation, Captain Obvious. The character is uneasy around the natural phenomena of death, but totally ok with going into battle with a powerful evil spirit that can give you bloody gums and dry heaves. Interesting value system you have there. Good luck with that.
Far worse than the predictable lines is the character development or lack thereof. The film begins with basic one dimensional stereotypes: workaholic dad, slightly bitter ex-wife, perfect new boyfriend to mom,older teen daughter of the “everything you do is WRONG” type, and younger daughter of the rose colored glasses, romantically idealistic type. This is a shame because the cast features the likes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Supernatural and the Watchmen) and Kyra Sedgwick (Gamer and The Closer) as the parents of the possessed Em. Natasha Calis (Impact and The Firm) plays Em while Madison Davenport (Over the Hedge and Horton Hears a Who) is the annoying older sister Hannah. Grant Show is perfectly cast as Brett the negligible boyfriend. Even Matisyahu, as young Hassidic exorcist Tzadok, didn’t have any character development. Unlike other exorcists like Father Damian Karras or Preacher Cotton Marcus, Tzadok is only on screen to a serve a function just like every other character in this movie.
None of the characters are likable. In some movies, like a creative slasher movie, liking the characters is optional because you can still enjoy the gore. In a film like this, caring about the characters is essential. Instead, it made me quite happy to be childless and single on a Friday night.
This brings us to the scary box that sings in Hebrew and belches moths, the most original of all the characters. When I was a teenage girl, and I was a flighty one at that, moths didn’t scare me. Wasps, spiders, bees, sure, but moths? MOTHS?! They don’t sting or bite. They’re delicate and therefore easily destroyed. But even if you have a veritable typhoon of moths, which this movie does, it is not scary…unless you’re a wool sweater.
But the box is at least an interesting character. What do they do with it? Pretty much nothing. From the beginning, I was curious. Why does the initial owner keep the box since she clearly knows something is wrong with it? Why is the box obsessed with moths? Essentially, what is the back story for this character, the box? The book apparently is dedicated to uncovering the history of the box. The movie decides to totally ignore that in order to focus on, instead, the predictable melodrama of Em’s family falling apart when she, a teenage girl, begins to act strangely.
When the more violent symptoms of possession begin to manifest, the mother asks, “Why now? We’ve been separated for a year.” The answer is right in the script. Early on at the dinner table of Dad’s new house, the elder daughter reveals the younger sister still thinks mom and dad will reunite. Dad’s purchase of a house, Mom’s removal of Dad’s office stuff, and Mom’s new beau are all clear indications that this is Not Going to Happen.
In reality a teenage girl, confronted with this while coping with new hormonal surges, could easily start to demonstrate behavioral issues. Throw in some gymnastics classes and perhaps a couple of phrases cribbed from various foreign languages (easily enough found online) and you pretty much have the basic set of symptoms for possession. To make it clear that this is not some easily explained psych issue but “legitimately supernatural” (even though none of this actually happened anyway) the box opens on its own, attacks both girls with moths, kills a teacher, and sings.
It is indeed a very scary box.
In the end, the parents DO actually reunite making this film like an evil version of the parent trap. Actually if this movie had been about the younger daughter elaborately faking possession to get the parents together it would be awesome! Gripping scenes of hunting moths and covertly constructing special effects like wind from nowhere while quickly applying white contacts from Hot Topic. However, the film still could have been great if it had stuck to the actual legend of the dybbuk.
In reality, there is no clear consensus on what a dybbuk is. While some claim it’s the soul of a person unable to depart this plane because of an unresolved sin, others believe its evil spirits only pretending to be loved ones. (This lack of consensus is not unique in terms of possession. Various Catholic experts on possession have conflicting views which is why it’s still controversial even within the Catholic Church.) This lack of consensus heightens the fear surrounding the phenomena. How can you destroy something if you’re not sure what it is? A film genuinely exploring the phenomena could be terrifying. This is NOT that movie.
But in all this complaining about the story, I almost forgot to talk about the directing by Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch and I am Dina). The style is for the director to try and ramp up the tension by increasing the sound to an ear bleeding frenzy and then cut to another calm shot and dead silence. Sure, it’s useful if implemented with a modicum if restraint. The 17th time? I wanted to storm the projection booth and demand the projectionist cut to the end already so we could all be well rid of this snore fest.
Lest you think I’m particularly harsh because I’m Jewish and have a bit more insight into the dybbuk phenomena than the average film goer, let me assure you that the audience was Not Having It. About 30 minutes in the chuckles began at places which were supposed to be tense, by half way through the dramatic scare scenes were met with open guffaws and jeers. Basically the “scary Jewish box almost ruined my life” did not go over well.
My recommendation: the only way to find this entertaining is if you watch it at home with friends who like to rip on films a la Rifftrax or MST3K. Otherwise, I watched it so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.