Despite Matisyahu, ‘The Possession’ Lacks Jewish Soul

Dybbuk film from Danish director disappoints.

09/04/2012
Special to the Jewish Week
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The Jewish people have a long tradition of interest in the occult and the supernatural — not that you’d know it from Hollywood’s version. Wonder-working rabbis animated the inanimate; the souls of the newly dead took over the bodies of the living. We did werewolves and demons — the whole haunted nine yards. (OK, Jewish tales are a little weak on vampires, although it’s not a stretch to read the Dracula story as anti-Semitic — another subject for another movie review.) From the legends of Lilith to the short fiction of I.B. Singer, you could stock an entire video store with fictional Jewish tales of terror. 

If someone had filmed them.

Consequently,  “The Possession,” a new film directed Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal (“Nightwatch”), immediately piqued my interest. The premise of the film, that a mysterious box covered with Hebrew lettering carries occult powers that disrupt the lives of a middle-class suburban family by taking over the younger daughter, is not especially inventive. But the intervention of a chasidic exorcist and the invocation of various Jewish myths present a potentially interesting twist on a genre previously dominated in America by Roman Catholicism.

Purportedly based on a true story (a rubric best taken with a few shakers of salt when you’re dealing with films about demonic manifestations), “The Possession” centers on the recently divorced Clyde (a sturdy Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick, regrettably wasted) and their two daughters, 15-year-old Hannah (Madison Davenport) and 13-year-old Emily (Natasha Calis). During the girls’ weekend with Dad, Emily becomes fascinated by the box, which is on display at a garage sale, and Clyde buys it for her. Of course, strange things start happening and Emily undergoes a slow transformation towards demonhood. After consulting a local expert, Clyde drives from his upstate home to Borough Park (looking mysteriously like Vancouver), where he finds Tzadok (Matisyahu) who vows to help rescue his daughter from the dybbuk that is seizing control of her soul.

As one might expect from a film with Sam Raimi’s name on it (the Spiderman series and horror/comedy film director co-produced), “The Possession” is a briskly efficient little number with the requisite number of jolts, a surprisingly restrained but effective use of gore effects and an occasional touch of humor.

Regrettably, what it lacks most is the kind of texture (or in this case it might be more appropriate to say tam, Yiddish for flavor) that would put either the exorcist or the demon squarely in the Jewish world in which they are supposedly rooted. There is a revealing sequence midway through the film when Clyde is watching a series of online videos of exorcisms. According to the end credits we are seeing an Islamic exorcist, a Jewish exorcist, a Native American shaman and others; but the footage all looks alike and is completely interchangeable. Frankly, the same could be said of both the possession and the casting out of the demon scenes in the this film. Despite Matisyahu’s presence, Tzadok could be a Shinto priest, a Buddhist nun or a TV repairman with an unusual skill-set. There just isn’t anything particularly Jewish about the film.

On the other hand, as a vivid and clever metaphor for the dilemmas of a young girl growing up America in 2012, “The Possession” works surprisingly well. Bornedal frequently presents the 13-year-old Emily as a potential object of sexual desire, shooting her in ways that call attention to her attractiveness and budding maturity. Em’s relationship to the box is a fascinating ambiguity in which the box functions at once as security blanket and source of changing self-definition. And the dialogue occasionally makes the parallel between puberty and demonic possession fairly explicit, with the girl telling her sister “I don’t feel like me,” and her devastated father confessing, “It’s not my little girl anymore.”

That relationship — baffled but well-meaning father and mercurial, emotionally overwrought daughter — is at the center of a thousand sitcoms but not many horror films. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Calis make it work quite nicely here, and she is clearly a young actress to watch out for.

As for Matisyahu — and I know that this is what most readers really want to know — he has real screen presence and, although the role doesn’t make any use of it at all, a certain smoldering sexual energy. In short, he can act. He doesn’t have enough screen time to give “The Possession” a hecksher as a quasi-kosher horror film, but it’s a safe bet he’ll be turning up in your movie theaters again. 

“The Possession” is playing in neighborhood theaters throughout the city and suburbs.

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