Monday, March 11, 2013

Film review: The Possession

I like figuring out how stories work. They all have histories, rules, connections and themes that are waiting to be unearthed. The difference between the good and bad ones, for me, is that the good ones have innards that make sense. They might not be obvious, they might require some work to figure out, and they might even surprise you. I always hope they'll surprise me, I like that part. If they're really good, the next time you go back to the story they'll even change.

The... not-as-good stories don't make a whole lot of sense.

Stories can be books, games, music, art, or, of course, movies. Movies have the same types of connections as anything else. Horror movies have rules. Each sub-genre has its own story, its own set of rules. Slashers have their final girl, vampires are vulnerable to stakes and sunlight, sever the zombies brain stem, silver bullets for werewolves. Some horror movies work within the rules, within the established history. Others consciously, intelligently subvert them. Then there are movies that toss half the rules out the window, and cut and paste the rest. Sloppy... maybe they mistrust the audience. Maybe they think the viewers won't realize what just happened.

Religions have stories, too. That, I think, is why I'm fascinated by religion but not religious myself. I find their mechanics so interesting. Their stories, their histories, their rules. I've watched a lot of horror that addresses religion for that reason, and because horror gives you a unique spin on religion that you can't get anywhere else.

If you're at all familiar with THE POSSESSION, you see where I'm going with this. I was really excited for the movie because the norm for horror about possession is a Catholic foundation. I was ready to see it from this angle. It didn't quite end up the way I had hoped.

In the film, Clyde and Stephanie are recently divorced with two kids, Em and Hannah. While at a yard sale for Clyde's new house, Em discovers a dibbuk box. Without knowing what it is, Clyde purchases it for her, and it unleashes a host of strange occurrences and behavior in Em herself. Her personality changes, she seems half there and half not, and lashes out violently with little provocation. She's extremely attached to her box, which Clyde tries to get rid of a couple of times with little success. After doing some research and talking to experts on Jewish history and faith, he realizes there is an entity in the box that is possessing his daughter.

The biggest thing missing from the film was faith. Usually in a film featuring religion, the main characters represent some specifically addressed level of faith. Even in THE EXORCIST, Chris MacNeil is established at having no faith of her own, while Father Karras is grappling with a crisis of faith. It's the conflict with faith that fuels the horror of what's happening to Chris' daughter, Regan. In THE POSSESSION, I had no clue what the family believed, if they believed anything. They don't have to be religious, but there should be some establishment of their atheism or agnosticism, whatever it happens to be. And there was no struggle with faith for anyone who did have it, i.e. Tzadok and the other members of his Jewish community. You could suggest that there was an element of broken faith in the notion of family because of the divorce, but I didn't feel like they played this up enough for it to work.

Despite the seeming lack of religion, Clyde bought into the idea of possession a little quickly for me. Not only did he buy in, he believed he could somehow banish it himself. I wasn't impressed when it finally came to him crying for the demon to "take him" instead either, that notion has been so over done, and in much more effective ways, that it had no effect on me.

As the film went on, I could feel it trying to ramp up the tension, but backing off too quickly to make me at all nervous. I wanted to be scared, I was ready to buy in and be more uncomfortable, but it never went far enough to reach that point for me.

In my opinion, the best part of the DVD was a special feature called "The Real History of the Dibbuk Box." It's much more interesting and better told than the film. It had a unique perspective that I didn't expect, promoting the idea of respecting the human spirit that is kept in the box rather than being aggressive and destructive towards it. Even the ending on the feature was creepier than the movie was, and I won't elaborate on why because I'd rather not spoil it. I think it's worth seeing that much.

I don't think this is an essential film to see for the average horror fan, only if you're a completist about horror in general, or religious horror specifically. I think watching the special feature I mentioned in addition to the trailer for the film (which you may have already seen) is just as valuable, if not more so, than watching the movie in its entirety. The trailer was great, it's what made me want to watch the movie. The Scala and Kolacny Brothers version of Rammstein's "Engel" gave it this epic, creepy feeling that got lost in the film.

Official website
The Possession trailer via YouTube
The Possession via Rotten Tomatoes


  1. I'm with you on Clyde's sudden acceptance. My favorite weird narrative decision was the demon MRI, though. If we accept the logic of that scene, then the possessing spirit was actually physically curled up inside the girl's chest cavity. Hope it brought a book or something.

  2. YES! I meant to mention that in my review, I'm glad you brought it up. That made so little sense... of course it looked really cool and was very creepy, but I totally didn't buy it.