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Review: Dark Atmosphere and Strong Acting Can’t Shake Up the Standard Horror of ‘The Possession’

The Possession might be the darkest movie ever made, in the most literal sense. From start to finish, the characters in this Dybbuk/exorcist horror flick don’t turn the lights on, to the point of sheer distraction. You expect such atmospherics in this genre – there’s no better way to amplify the audience’s nerves than by impairing their vision – but this movie goes so overboard that it calls attention to itself for the total lack of any form of luminescence. One suspects that the big reason for this has less to do with any sort of stylistic conceit on the part of director Ole Bornedal and more to do with the simple fact that there’s just not much to the movie beyond its brooding, tragic atmosphere.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as divorced dad Clyde, who is faced with an unfathomable test when an antique box that he’s purchased at a garage sale for daughter Em (Natasha Calis) turns the sweet young girl into a demented, evil child. It turns out that the creepy old box contains a Dybbuk, an old dispossessed Jewish spirit, which has taken up residence inside Em. From there, not wanting to live down its extraordinarily generic title, the movie goes through the familiar paces of a possession movie. Creepy moths swarm Em, who belts out vile phrases, stabs her dad with a fork and makes people suddenly, spontaneously drop dead, among other malevolent touches.

Even though the movie hits all the usual beats, Bornedal and screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White smartly refuse to divest the Dybbuk from its ethnic origins. The filmmakers actually incorporate Brooklyn Hasidim in the proceedings (the main Jewish character is played, earnestly, by Matisyahu), there’s a scene in a synagogue, and the movie features the first genuinely Yiddishkeit onscreen exorcism in memory. (Yes, Gary Oldman played a rabbi in The Unborn, but the character was basically a conventional, mainstream religious figure.)

The film is polished, well-crafted, and classically composed, without a reliance on jump scares. You can practically taste the cool crispness of the Vancouver air and the pristine suburban interiors amplify the onscreen horrors. At the same time, Jeffrey Dean Morgan gives a standout performance as the tortured, conflicted Clyde, projecting an outward calm that belies his inner panic.

Yet for all its positives,The Possessionis simply just another movie about a possessed demon child who does the things that demon children do. Put simply, it’s so familiar that it just isn’t scary. That’s why, in the end, you spend more time thinking about the lights than anything that happens onscreen.

The Upside: It’s classically composed and atmospheric; Jeffrey Dean Morgan gives a solid performance.

The Downside: Still, you’ve seen this same movie thousands of times before.

On the Side: If you’re really interested in all things Dybbuk, skip this film and recent predecessor The Unborn. Instead, check out the 1937 Yiddish film The Dybbuk or re-watch the Coens’ A Serious Man.

Robert Levin has written dozens (if not hundreds) of reviews for Film School Rejects since his first piece in 2009. He is the film critic for amNewYork, one of the most widely circulated daily newspapers in New York City and the United States, and the paper's website amNY.com. He's a Brooklyn resident who tries very hard not to be a cliche.

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