The Possession (2012)

He's STILL by the side of the road!
Ole Bornedal
Jeffery Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgewick, Natasha Calis, Matisyahu
The Setup: 
Girl gets possessed by Dybbuk, mildly bad things happen.

During the zillion previews that came before this film, my friend and I were commenting how all of these PG-13 horror films look exactly the same. There just seem to be more and more every week, and it's pretty much impossible to tell them apart. It made me wonder if, in the future, there would be a whole genre of new millennium horror cheapies that someone would look back on and appreciate, as we do gialli or 80s slasher films. This one got mildly decent reviews, so we went because there was nothing else, and well, I wish I could say it turned out well or was an undiscovered gem, but no, it's exactly what it seems like: a quickie cheapo to rake in as much money as possible before it's forgotten. The only thing interesting about it is the way it provides an excellent example of how empty a film can be without subtext, and why films need subtext. Which we'll get to later.

So as usual, the beginning is front-loaded with a ton of information. Clyde, played by Jeffery Dean Morgan (who at least gave me something to look at throughout and has a great deep voice) is newly divorced from Kyra Sedgewick as Stephanie, and gets the two girls, Hannah and Emily, on weekends. Stephanie has lots of advice about how the girls are vegetarians, and they're allergic to this and that, and they can't have pizza. The underlying feeling from the start is that Clyde, as an idiot man, can barely be trusted with a glass of water, let alone two girls, while Stephanie, as a woman and as a mother, is a saintly protector of all good things and is at least twelve moral rungs above Clyde in every respect. Which would be fine--if the film was going anywhere with it. We learn that Emily, the younger sister at ten years old, is more upset about the divorce than Hannah. Dad moves into a new house which is the only completed one in a subdivision being built, a good, isolated location that, like many things, goes nowhere and has no bearing on anything.

One day at a yard sale Emily buys a wooden box with Hebrew writing on it. The previous owner, all bandaged up after a pre-credits spirit attack, starts freaking out that someone is taking her box, a nice, creepy touch. Once home, they can't get into the box, until suddenly Emily can, and inside she finds a dead moth, a ring, a tooth, some hair, a used disposable razor, some expired McDonalds gift certificates, a set of keys with a Duran Duran key ring, a Roxette CD and a Starbucks gift card that still has $0.75 on it. She sleeps with the box, and the next morning Hannah finds a big nasty moth in her bed. In a humorous touch, Dad kills it, then both girls blame him because they're staunch mini-environmentalists who believe that every life on Earth is connected. Another intriguing little thematic thread that... goes nowhere.

The next morning Emily is eating rather voraciously, and stabs her dad in the hand with a fork when he suggests she slow down. Talk about let go of my Eggo. Then Emily has a room swarming with moths, which Stephanie later pooh-poohs as one little bug who gave her idiot husband a spook. But what about letting the girls eat pizza? That's tantamount to MURDER! She has a smarmy new boyfriend, Fred, who is always hanging around making allergy-free dinners for Stephanie and the girls and otherwise being Mr. Perfect in a way Clyde could never hope to be.

By the way, look here. Is this about the most ludicrous picture you could ever hope to see?

Soon Emily is feeling funny and seeing strange fingers coming up out of her throat, the big moment from the trailer. She brings the box to school where she beats down a boy who tries to take it, resulting in ye olde parental visit to the principal who says "This wasn't just a fight--this was violence!" And a fight is...? Are there non-violent fights? Maybe Emily should have had a dance-off. The box is left at school and that night, in a scene that has nothing whatsoever to do with the film and is just there to toss another killing into the mix, the teacher dies a distressingly non-scary, non-creepy PG-13 death. The next morning Emily doesn't care, she just wants her box back. She says there's a woman in the box who talks to her, and you're like "Oh, so maybe that's where all this man-hating is going, the movie is about a vengeful female ghost who fomenting hatred of Dad," but um, not really. Like everything else, it just goes nowhere.

Dad takes the box and tosses it in a public dumpster. Emily freaks, and soon, as you knew was coming, is taking spiritual punches that make it look as though Dad is hitting her. She runs off and retrieves the box, whereupon a bunch of moths fly into her mouth. Is THIS the moment of full possession? We already saw the fingers in her throat. Oh well, best not try to make sense of it. Soon the girl is in the hospital and Stephanie has a restraining order and is doing the full-on Ford-Tough Mama Grizzly act, refusing to speak with Clyde, who has no history of violence, or hear his side because hello, he is a MAN, therefore he is of course one tick away from physical violence at all times. This is the point at which I started to full-on HATE Stephanie, and consider her outside the realm of forgiveness. She is also incensed because Clyde has a lead on a job in another state that he didn't mention, because it is just a lead, but is treated as proof that he is an evil, selfish man who is going to abandon his family, though really lady--who would want to stick around YOU?

Nevertheless, in here are hints that Clyde and Stephanie might rekindle the fire, because he has his email on her computer, causing my companion to say "She has his email on her computer? She has his email On. Her. Computer. Not since 1998 has anyone had email ON another person's computer." What's there is a video of the couple together during the good times, which causes them to have fond memories of when love was new. Meanwhile, Fred the ubiquitous new BF is suggesting the girls have movie night to "lighten the mood around here," and telling Steph to lay off the wine. Fred has a near-miss with the demon in the garage, meant to just goose up the mood while nothing narrative is happening.

Meanwhile, Clyde pops over to some Jewish professor's to have a chat about this box. The professor has a title "Self Possession Through Transformation" on his screen, and HELLO lazy filmmakers, please do not have some huge, massive, seemingly-meaningful thing like that in your movie if it isn't going to mean anything. Especially when one-quarter of your meaningless phrase is the title of the film. There are people out the trying to take your film seriously, and you are making them out to be fools. I'm sorry you're hacks, okay? But that's not OUR fault.

Anyway, Clyde finds out that the box is a Dybbuk Box, meant to contain a nasty spirit, and no one should ever open it, and--oops. By the way, you can read the "true story" that inspired this film here. So then he high-tails it to a hasidic section of Brooklyn where he comes across young Hasid Tzadok, played by rapper Matisyahu, who we can tell is a hip dude because he's singing along to music on his iPod. He takes Clyde in to see the elders, who freak out at his story and refuse to help, causing Clyde to have a tearful speech and deliver the old standby "You HAVE to help me." Uh, I do? For what reason? This line is always especially potent when issued by white suburban yuppies.

The elders say sorry dude, but Tzadok decides to go along, which is about the point at which you say "Wow, so this film is just a flat-out remake of The Exorcist. Like, they're not even trying to hide it." Meanwhile, Mom wakes to find Emily rummaging through the bottom of the fridge with a big raw steak in her mouth, we have some extremely tepid PG-13 spooks, and now Mom's a believer, she's a believer, she couldn't leave her if she tried. The next day Fred is a bit dismissive, proving that he isn't the wonder-man mom initially took him for, and he's out doing something to the car when Emily makes all his teeth fall out, and he ends up careening away in an out-of-control car. Then Emily passes out, and mom rushes her to the hospital.

Dad shows up with his hip exorcist, while mom is tearful at her daughter's bedside, and as the scene goes on you're like "Wait a minute--so mom just left her boyfriend to rot by the side of the road?" I think he could have used some medical attention as well, and as far as we know, there was still time to save him. Unfortunately screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, who are also responsible for Knowing, by the way, are simply too stupid to know that this makes mom a terrible, completely irredeemable person. Anyway, she's all happy to see the exorcist, now, and nowhere in here does she apologize for all the unjustified abuse and scorn she heaped on her ex-husband for the entire movie.

Clyde somehow knows that there's an unused physical therapy room upstairs, and they go there to perform the exorcism. Emily soon runs off to the unrefrigerated morgue, containing several corpses, that is also on the same floor. There what could have been our subtext is again hinted at when she repeats "Daddy, you scared me" until it becomes "Daddy, you SCARE me." When the family shows up (and what WERE they doing that whole time?) Dad is now possessed, not Emily, and Zardoz, I mean Tzadok, orders the demon back into the box, to which it handily complies, and--gee, I didn't think it was going to be quite so easy. That demon sure is agreeable. Hardly seems to have justified all the fuss. Well--who's up for ice cream?

We then have an epilogue in which we see that Clyde and Stephanie are back together, despite what an ill-advised match that is, but I guess a life of being constantly torn down and psychologically castrated is right for him. There's a little ominous coda--as my friend observed, no good is going to come of showing a Jew in a German car--and, as far as we know, Fred's corpse is still rotting in a crashed vehicle two blocks away.

What's most frustrating about it is that it comes close to being good. The hints of subtext are there--the divorce, the girls perhaps afraid of their father and the violence he may hide, the fact that the spirit is a female who may empower Emily to stand up to male dominance--but none of it is drawn together enough to actually make it work. Not to mention that all of it plays on sexual politics imported wholesale from a commercial for Downy Fabric Softener, which just treats as a GIVEN that Clyde, being a man, is a selfish, violent offender, and Stephanie, being a woman, is a selfless protector and nurtuer. Then it proceeds to ignore the audience's growing feeling that Clyde doesn't deserve all of the abuse being heaped on him, and Stephanie needs to have some comeuppance, or show some humility, and not be treated like a saint til the end--despite the fact that she literally abandons her new boyfriend by the side of the road.

Ultimately, it provides an excellent example of why films, particularly horror films, need some kind of subtext. It's kind of like regular versus diet soda, or iced tea with sweetener versus iced tea with sugar. It just isn't full-bodied, or rich, or satisfying. Some genres, like drama or comedy, can just be what they are (witness the straightforward, subtext-free films of Clint Eastwood), but other genres, like horror or sci-fi, are always about something OTHER than what they're ostensibly "about," so slasher films are usually about teen sexuality, zombie films are about consumerism and societal decay, ghost films are about unresolved psychological tensions... This one makes efforts to be about the trauma of Emily's parents' divorce, and her fear of male sexuality, and her emerging womanhood, and... you know what? Pick one and run with it. The script just throws in anything, and none of it coheres into a complete statement, rendering all of it empty.

And finally, this film really suffers from being PG-13. I don't think that rating necessarily has to be a hindrance--more gore doesn't equal more scares--if you are able to generate intensity and genuinely unnerving content. But here, everything is just extremely tame, the demon seems more like a nuisance than anything, and as noted, there's no subtextual content to give all of this more resonance beyond what it is on a literal level. Ultimately, I'd rather see something that is outright crap but fun (e.g. the Resident Evil series) than something that is just cynically trying to separate me from my money. The more I think about this movie, the more I hate it.

Should you watch it: 

A rental at best, if you are completely out of other ideas.