Possession, The (US - BD RA)
Oy! Gabe kvetshes at a bunch of goys in a Hebrew version of The Exorcist...
The Possession is yet another entry in the insanely overcrowded exorcist film market…with a twist – it’s a Jewish take on the normally Catholic-based subgenre. Instead of Christian constructs like the Devil or Pazuzu, this particular victim has been possessed by a Dybbuk – a malevolent possessing spirit that gained mainstream popularity when Russian-Jewish author S. Ansky wrote a play about the creature. In this story, a newly divorced father, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), tries to impress his daughters, Em (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport), with his new country home. While shopping at a yard sale for essentials, Em finds an antique box with Hebrew inscriptions engraved on it, which Clyde buys for her. Em is quickly obsessed with the box and her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Clyde and his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) at first assume she’s acting out because of the divorce, but soon enough realize that events have turned supernatural and their child may indeed be possessed by the Dybbuk that the box was constructed to contain.
Unfortunately for Ghost House Pictures, producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert (the guys behind the Evil Dead and Xena franchises), and director-for-hire Ole Bornedal, someone already made a modern horror movie with a generic name using the Dybbuk – The Unborn. Even more unfortunate is the fact that The Unborn was written and directed by David Goyer and thus, it was mostly awful. Undeterred or possibly entirely unaware of the existence of The Unborn (which is understandable, because, again, it’s mostly awful), Raimi (who himself was raised in a conservative Jewish household) and Tapert pressed on with their generically titled, Jewish-themed possession movie, which, in the end, has almost nothing else in common with Goyer’s (also a Jew from Michigan, by the way) mostly awful Dybbuk movie.
The bigger issue here is how utterly generic so much of the film is. At its most basic, the plot boils down a laundry list of stuff from William Friedkin’s subgenre-defining film, The Exorcist, then just ‘find and replace’ the Catholic stuff with Jewish stuff and dials back the R-rated content. Goyer’s film was mostly awful, but at least he attempted to tap into some thematically original stuff with his Nazi concentration camp subplots. Writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White even go so far as to borrow the ‘divorce as the real horror’ subtext from William Peter Blatty’s original book. What’s sad is that the real story Snowden and White loosely based their screenplay on is genuinely more frightening and would’ve made a more intriguing cinematic premise. At the very least it would’ve been harder to shoehorn Exorcist tropes into the mess. Legend has it that an antiques dealer named Kevin Mannis bought a ‘Dybbuk box’ at an estate sale. The box had reportedly belonged to a Polish Holocaust survivor and inside it was a strange collection of objects that were supposedly used in Jewish folklore to exorcise demons. Mannis then developed a series of nightmares and health ailments that were, in turn, shared by subsequent owners of the box. Eventually it was put on eBay by a student named Iosif Neitzke, whose graphic description brought it to the attention of the internet. You can read all about it here on the Dybbuk Box’s official website.
Ole Bornedal is best known for writing and directing the original Danish and English remake versions of Nightwatch. Not being the most prolific up-and-comer with Hollywood promise, he worked mostly in TV, but eventually (a decade after the Nightwatch remake) he made an amusing sci-fi/comedy/horror hybrid called The Substitute, which was picked up by Ghost House and released on R1 home video as part of the first run of Ghost House Underground releases. I’m sure that the critics that lauded his feature debut back in 1994 didn’t suspect he’d more or less disappear, only to reappear with a Jewish-themed Exorcist rip-off, but it’s good to see him getting a payday and good to see Raimi and Tapert being creative with their hiring choices. Bornedal brings quite a bit of grace and class to what could’ve been an utterly pointless exercise. He also cribs a bit from Raimi’s more energetic style on occasion. These more stylistically aggressive moments are a bit jarring in comparison to Bornedal’s more consistent steady, gliding camera work, but each give the film some nice rhythm and a sense of humour. As a terribly jaded horror fan, I was never particularly frightened by Bornedal’s efforts and the climax doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of the set-up, but he definitely taps into some creepy imagery.
The cast really makes a difference as well, though I’ve got to extend some credit to Snowden and White for the naturalistic approach to dialogue. As a writing team, they don’t have the best taste in originality or even structure, but they know characters well enough. The relatively small cast is quickly presented as likable and are relatively well-rounded, with only a smidgen of stereotypical family melodrama holding things back from real believability. But shorthand is important, especially if we’re talking about a 92-minute movie that wants to treat a rather silly premise with a certain amount of respect. It’s no surprise when Jeffery Dean Morgan is good these days (it’d be great if he’d get a part in a genuinely good movie for a change), but he is especially good here as a movie cliché divorced dad. What’s more noteworthy is that relative unknowns Natasha Calis and Madison Davenport are fantastically natural and pleasant, despite the fact that they are playing ‘tween/teenagers in a horror movie. Kyra Sedgwick and Grant Show are the only major cast members that aren’t quite able to step beyond the limitations of their characters.
The Possession was shot on 35mm film, but has also been pretty heavily altered in post using some kind of digital grading or processing. This 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is most easily defined as ‘stark.’ The somewhat grainy (not too grainy) image is filled out with simple, sharp lines and high contrast shapes. There is plenty of fine close-up detail, wonderful texture (skin, hair, knit sweaters), and elaborate, deep set wide-shots, but, film grain aside, the cleanliness of a shot is paramount to the complexity. The problem is that the image is sometimes over-sharpened, leading to edge haloes and other similar artefacts. The stark look extends especially to the washed-out colour qualities. At times, The Possession is a practically monochromatic film, featuring high contrast with black bases. When the palette is expressive enough to notice it mostly comes down to simplified earth tones and occasionally green exterior shots. The severity of the white levels leads to some overload and bleached, which is sort of the idea, but, again, leads to edge enhancement effects that I’m pretty sure were unintended. When warmer hues do make an appearance, they’re usually thematically important to a scene and pop against the starkness appropriately. Warmer hues are also very consistent and clean.
The Possession is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound and follows the lead set by most supernaturally-tinged horror flicks. The key element here is contrasting ranges. Dialogue and jump scare set-ups are uber-quiet, mostly centered, and feature almost zero noise, outside of the most basic ambience and lightest music. Then, when scares are concerned, volume levels are punched up and the stereo and surround channels burst forth with directional enhancements. Nothing ever reaches the manic heights of Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, but there are plenty of rear channel creepy-crawlies, phantasmagoric winds, and demonic creature vocal effects to go around. The aural highlight for me is the MRI scan sequence. Here, the horrible chug of the MRI builds against the multi-channel crackle of electrical shorts without overwhelming the dialogue. Anton Sanko’s musical score is the usual mix of haunting piano motifs, swirling strings, and climaxing brass. It’s unoriginal and tonally inappropriate at times, but sounds fantastic. The score is among the track’s strongest elements and features major dynamic range between the softer piano work and the boisterous brass. The louder moments also help accentuate the film’s abrupt transitions from a wall of noise to utter silence.
The extras begin with not one, but two feature commentary tracks. The first track features director Ole Bornedal solo. Bornedal seems to be recording the track either in a library or while a baby naps nearby, because he is so unbelievably quiet I could barely understand what he was saying. Clearly, he takes the commentary track game very seriously, as his tone never invites us to have any fun, but he also doesn’t appear to understand the point of said track, because he spends a lot of time either narrating the film or describing the film’s tone/subtext. He rarely explains the process or the whys of his images – he just plainly states the meaning, as if we didn’t already notice. This track also features a whole lot of blank space and repeated discussion. The second track features writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White. This track is much livelier and features much more information on the process of writing the story. Snowden and White run us through their inspiration and discuss the changes made between the original story and their script, followed by the changes made to the script as it was filmed. They also paint a decent picture of the behind-the-scenes process, which they were a part of longer than Bornedal. There’s still some repetition, a sullen tone, and overstated congratulations for the cast, but this track has a plan and actually educates the audience, rather than lulling them to sleep.
The Real History of the Dibbuk Box (I’m not sure why they spell it that way, 13:20, HD) briefly covers the story that inspired the film, including images of the real box and interviews with owners Kevin Mannis, Jason Haxton, and his son Russ. The extras end with a trailer and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
The Possession isn’t the only ‘based on a true story’ horror flick to miss the boat by altering its basis too much, but it’s easiest to compare these shortcomings to Peter Cromwell’s Haunting in Connecticut – another movie that changed the unique qualities of an original story to better conform to popular genre tropes. In fact, Haunting in Connecticut and The Possession feel cut from the same cloth on a lot of levels. Both films step above the familiarity of their material, due to solid direction and authentically good performances, but, in the end, are just too predictable to be memorable, not to mention held back by studio-mandated PG-13 ratings. This Blu-ray falls a little short in terms of overall video quality, but it certainly sounds great. The extras include one incredibly dull commentary, one decent commentary, and an all too brief featurette on the true story that inspired the film.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 14th January 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Director's Commentary, Writers' Commentary, The Real History of the Dybbuk Box, Trailers, Digital Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ole Bornedal
Cast: Natasha Calis, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Madison Davenport
Genre: Drama, Horror and Thriller
Length: 92 minutes
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