The Possession lost me even before its first shot with a caption that reads, “The events depicted in this film are based on a true story.” Right, and I’ve got a bridge to sell you. To be clear, I’m not so close-minded that I can’t enjoy a good piece of speculative fiction about the paranormal, but, come on, if there actually were a documented case of a full-grown hand emerging from a little girl’s face, don’t you think we’d have heard about it, that a documentary would have made a better venue for this material, or, better yet, that it’d be in incredibly bad taste to watch a Hollywood thriller about the poor soul’s suffering while gobbling down popcorn? I can’t help wondering why studios keep making movies with this tagline. To my knowledge, they don’t exactly rake in the dough.
Moreover, “based on a true story” implies a certain formula. Before even watching it, we know The Possession focuses on a middle American family because the producers wouldn’t have mentioned “real life” if they didn’t want us to relate to the story. By the same token, we surmise the parents, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), are separated because divorce has become the most common dramatic source for a middle American family. We can also tell their youngest child, Em (Natasha Calis), gets possessed because nothing frightens middle American families going to horror flicks based on true stories like the thought of remaining helpless as their babies slip away. Really, aside from the refreshing use of Jewish folklore instead of Christianity, we’ve seen it all before.
Ironically, I find the real “true story” more intriguing. The Possession draws inspiration from the dybbuk box, a concept that first surfaced on eBay of all places. According to the seller, Kevin Mannis, the old wine cabinet serves as prison to a malevolent spirit and brings malediction to whoever owns it. Whether Mannis wrote the blurb as a joke or a hoax is left unclear, but he surely didn’t believe his own tale, or else he wouldn’t have sold the item to the highest bidder, who might open it and set the demon loose. Nevertheless, people from the four corners of the Web started contributing to the legend, much like one reviews Tuscan milk on Amazon, resulting in a movie that redefines the word “true” in “based on a true story”.
I shouldn’t complain, mind you, since it gives director Ole Bornedal an opportunity for outlandish set pieces, including the aforementioned hand crawling out of Em’s mouth and a makeshift Jewish exorcism conducted by Tzadok (Matisyahu), an iPod-loving Hasidic rabbi with a heart of gold. The unlikely body count also helps keep things fresh as the dybbuk-in-the-box melts supporting characters’ faces and flings them onto walls with enough strength to break their bones. You’d figure the massacre surrounding a mysteriously ill ten-year-old who spits out moths and body parts would’ve made the news at some point.
Here’s another layer of irony: despite all this, The Posession feels realer to me than most flicks of its genre. I appreciate the way screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White balance the characters’ virtues and faults, keeping them all too believable in their inconsistencies. For example, Clyde’s relationship with Stephanie comes off warm and respectful overall, yet the two keep crossing essential boundaries, hinting at years of accumulated bitterness. By the same token, would-be stepfather Brett (Grant Show) proves kind of a jerk, capitalising on accusations of domestic abuse to score points with the family, but he never crosses the line in terms of basic human decency.
My favourite throwaway character, though, is Em’s big sister, Hannah (Madison Davenport), who spends most of the runtime staring at eerie digital effects with her hands over her mouth. I mention this without qualm, seeing as Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick both prove too confident and charismatic to sell these moments. A vulnerable fourteen-year-old, however, can filter all our worries and discomfort. Besides, once again, the filmmakers nail the character’s voice, from the way she screams, “What?” whenever she needs a second to process to her pearls of wisdom regarding divorce: “I really think you’ll feel better if you stop giving a shit.” I can’t decide whether this is the best advice presented in the worst possible way or the worst advice presented in the best manner imaginable.
I feel equally ambivalent about the movie as a whole. On the one hand, it pales in comparison to the more imaginative supernatural thrillers out there. On the other, when juxtaposed with the usual The Exorcist (1973) knock-offs, Bornedal’s yarn stands out for finally deviating from the thematic scheme William Friedkin established forty years ago. Consider how his use of Hasidic Judaism shifts the paradigm from “man rekindling with God” to “man reaching out to another culture”. I guess what I’m trying to convey is that “based on a true story” horror has never been my cup of tea, but, hey, if you’re a middle American family looking to give the formula a whirl, you might as well start with The Possession.