Title: The Possession
Director: Ole Bornedal (‘The Substitute’)
Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan (‘Watchmen,’ TV’s ‘Supernatural’), Kyra Sedgwick (TV’s ‘The Closer’), Natasha Calis (TV’s ‘The Firm’) and Madison Davenport (TV’s ‘Shameless’)
One of the most relentlessly persistent fears among people is the religious belief that their bodies can be possessed by an evil spirit determined to take over their lives to carry out its own evil plan. When a seemingly ordinary box has the power to unleash the powerful entity, innocent people’s lives are automatically put in danger. Such a threat was discovered in 2004 by Los Angeles Times journalist Leslie Gornstein, when she found what was described as an authentic Dibbuk Box on eBay. The box serves as the inspiration for the new horror thriller ‘The Possession.’ The film showcases the horrifying effects evil spirits can have on an entire family, instead of just the intended victim.
‘The Possession’ follows the newly divorced Clyde (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick), who separated in part because of his obsessive dedication to his basketball coaching job. The two initially see little cause for alarm when their younger teenage daughter, Em (played by Natasha Calis), becomes obsessed with an antique wooden box she bought at a yard sale. But as her behavior becomes increasingly erratic, Clyde and Stephanie, along with their older daughter Hannah (portrayed by Madison Davenport), fear the presence of a malevolent force in their midst.
After consulting with Professor McMannis (played by Jay Brazeau) and Tzadok (portrayed by Matisyahu), the son of a Hasidic rabbi, Clyde realizes that Em’s box was built to contain a Dibbuk. The dislocated spirit is determined to inhabit and devour Em, so Clyde must convince Stephanie that they must do whatever it takes to defeat the Dibbuk.
Screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White took a drastic and daring approach to the subject of Dibbuks in ‘The Possession’ by creating a modern story that features the typical human host for the malevolent presence. Em was the perfect choice to be drawn to the box and become a target for the Dibbuk, as the typical human host is usually a vulnerable young woman with a certain weakness. Em hasn’t been able to accept her parents’ divorce and the split of her family as well as Hannah has, as she doesn’t understand why Clyde and Stephanie can’t work out their differences. The Dibbuk perfectly targeted Em’s vulnerabilities and insecurities about her separated family in order to enter the human world.
Filmmaker Ole Bornedal, who directed ‘The Possession,’ made the right casting choice with Calis for the role of the tortured Em. The actress perfectly understood that the character isn’t just an evil young girl lashing out over the separation of her family; Calis portrayed Em as being sad after realizing that she is possessed and can’t control what’s happening to her body or emotions. The actress also showcased Em’s bravery as she struggled to keep the Dibbuk inside so she wouldn’t unleash her rage onto others.
Calis also had a commendable working relationship with Morgan, who portrayed Clyde as being determined to save his young daughter while his ex-wife adamantly denies there’s anything wrong with her. The actor perfectly understood his character’s constant internal struggle to balance his life as a father wanting to reconnect with his daughters, and learning not to always put his work before his family. But once he sees and realizes that the soul of his innocent daughter starts to disappear and is replaced by a malevolent evil, he truly begins to understand how much his family means to him.
Clyde is willing to put his own life in danger and draw on his own strength in order to save his daughter. He overcomes his grief and flaws as he begins to put his life back in order during a time of extreme duress. Clyde suddenly becomes the rational, caring parent who would sacrifice everything to save his child, as compared to Stephanie, who clings to the hope there’s a rational explanation for Em’s behavior. While Sedgwick brought an emotional honesty to a role filled with anxiety, Stephanie’s likeability begins to diminish throughout the course of the film. She continuously feels the need to control the situation and solve the problem her own way, even if it’s not the right way. Her denial and hesitation to listen to Clyde begins to truly affect the welfare of her daughter.
Besides his intriguing casting, Bornedal also chose riveting locations for the various scenes in ‘The Possession.’ One of the most frightening locations was during a scene in a hospital where Stephanie brought Em to be treated. The director chose the abandoned Riverview Mental Institution in Coquitiam, British Columbia, which closed in 1983 after 70 years of operation, to film the all-important scene. The dilapidated, reportedly haunted buildings provided a chilling atmosphere for the family’s confrontation with the evil inside Em with its decrepit walls and shoddy lighting.
While Bornedal provided the horror thriller with intriguing locations and admirable casting, the physical scares unfortunately failed to live up to the frightening nature of the Dibbuk. While the filmmaker incorporated bold choices, like including moths, an insect not largely seen in movies, into the story, Bornedal pushed the physical frights aside to instead focus on the characters and their relationships. While the exploration of characters’ bonds in horror films is important, the lack of blood and violence unfortunately took away the pensive nature and history of the Dibbuk’s story.
‘The Possession’ deserves credit for being a horror film that intelligibly focuses on its diverse characters with its admirable casting and its terrifying locations that add suspense to the story. Unfortunately, Bornedal’s admirable cast, who formed genuine bonds with each other, and riveting sets failed to make up for the lack of physical scares throughout the course of the film. If the director more equally balanced the Dibbuk’s physical influence over Em and the rest of the Breneks, instead of just the emotional toll, ‘The Possession’ could have been one of the better exorcism films released by Hollywood.
Written by: Karen Benardello