In the end, it's hard to recommend the film to the usual horror crowd, given that many will have seen a lot of The Possession played out in countless other possessed child movie entries.
For mainstream movie fans The Possession producer, Sam Raimi, is best known for helming Toby Maguire's blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy but, for horror movie lovers, the filmmaker is also responsible for directing fan-favorites like Army of Darkness, the Evil Dead films, and most recently Drag Me to Hell. While the in-demand director can't personally oversee every scary movie project that crosses his desk, he's assisted in bringing several other fan-favorite horror properties to the big screen - producing the American Grudge series as well as the upcoming Poltergeist remake.
For The Possession, Raimi handed over the director's chair to Danish filmmaker, Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch) - with a cast that includes Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen), Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), as well as reggae fusion recording artist, Matisyahu. Has Bornedal, who is mostly unknown to American audiences, managed to take enough pages out of Raimi's playbook in order to present audiences with a terrifying new take on the "possessed young person" horror sub-genre?
Unfortunately, despite a solid performance from Morgan and several genuinely creepy moments, The Possession fails to differentiate itself from standard exorcism stories and movie experiences - even if it is "Based on True Events." While the "Box" element of the plot definitely adds mystery and intrigue to the proceedings, many of the film's twists, turns, and scares are easily predictable (not to mention outright spoiled in the trailer) despite being couched in an above average core premise. Unlike the often tongue-in-cheek approach of some Raimi-produced horror movies, The Possession takes itself very seriously and moviegoers looking for a unique or unrelenting scare fest will likely be underwhelmed. However, compelling leading actors and mostly engaging characters elevate the The Possession above some of its exorcism movie contemporaries - resulting in a competent but unremarkable horror drama hybrid.
As mentioned, The Possession story is pretty basic fare: following a protracted separation (and eventual divorce) between Clyde (Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (Sedgwick), daughters Em (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport) live with their mother and spend time with their father during certain weekends. On one of their visits, Em, Hannah, and Clyde visit a neighborhood yard sale - where the youngest Brenek daughter is quickly drawn to a mysterious box engraved with Hebrew inscriptions. However, when the box is finally opened, Em begins to exhibit uncharacteristically strange as well as increasingly violent behaviors. As his daughter grows more and more disconnected (not to mention dangerous), Clyde enlists Rabbi Tzadok (Matisyahu) to help him trace the origins of the malevolent box. Of course, it's never quite that simple, right?
The dynamics between Clyde and his daughters succeed in adding a grounded, and relatable, layer of family drama onto what would otherwise be a very standard exorcism tale. The film, and horror scares, are much more subdued than similar offerings - relying heavily on strong performances from Morgan and Calis to relay Em's ongoing transformation. Sedgwick's Stephanie, as well as the over-arching divorce plot line, isn't nearly as compelling as the Clyde and Em interactions but, for the most part, they work to help make Morgan's character more endearing - given that he's at first framed as a kind but ultimately self-absorbed and absent father.
Bornedal owes a lot to Morgan - considering the actor approaches his Possession role as if he were in an indie Oscar-bait flick. Clyde is easily one of the most endearing horror protagonists in recent memory - largely because Morgan commits to scenes that would otherwise be melodramatic with a subtlety and charm that is rarely found in the genre. The delicate affection between Em and Clyde, juxtaposed against the more complicated relationship of Clyde and teenager Hannah, offers an engrossing foundation for things to go horribly wrong.
Similarly, Calis is captivating as she carries Em from a sweet and charming kid who spouts quips about the benefits of vegetarianism to a very creepy and hollowed out vessel for evil incarnate. There's never a moment where Calis comes across as a young actress playing a sinister character - even when the film pushes family drama to the side in favor of upping the horror ante. Whether playing Em lucid and aware or "possessed," as soon as the box is opened, Calis delivers a smart balance that keeps the young girl's fear and confusion consistently at the forefront - which is far more horrifying to watch than many of the film's scripted scares.
In spite of those nuanced offerings from the leads, The Possession presents a pretty thin horror experience. There are jump scares, tense and violent encounters, as well as plenty of creepy moments but there's also very little that audiences will not have seen before in one film or another. Most of the actual "kills" are enacted on side characters with thin connections to the Brenek family - little more than meat to keep tension up while transforming Em and exploring the box mystery. As a result, without real emotional investment in potential victims, viewers are mostly just watching a series of violent things play out, not fully engaged in the would-be horror, since there's no emotional connection to fulfill. That said, once the film reaches the third act, and the truth about the box and Em come full circle, there's a fleeting opportunity where enough pieces fall into place and a few genuinely interesting horror moments are provided. Unfortunately, by that point, many moviegoers may feel as though The Possession hit its stride far too late.
A pair of sharp performances as well as an intriguing core premise help elevate The Possession above standard exorcism offerings and moviegoers who are interested in a creepy drama movie punctuated by a number of disturbing horror moments might find something worthwhile in The Possession. However, the film is missing the fun of prior Raimi-produced efforts and, as a more serious film, lacks both unique scares as well as interesting twists. In the end, it's hard to recommend the film to the usual horror crowd, given that many will have seen a lot of The Possession played out in countless other "possessed child" movie entries but, for those who just want a spooky theater trip (or are less familiar with the tropes of the genre), Bornedal's film might be worthy
of your soul of a watch.
If you’re still on the fence about The Possession, check out the trailer below:
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The Possession is Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences. Now playing in theaters.