I was so eager to get to this review that I haven’t even finished the film. Don’t stop the presses just yet–this isn’t going to be my first unequivocally positive review. But there’s enough to unpack here that I wanted to get some of it down before it evaporates from my atrophying think-muscle.
The Possession is entirely formulaic. It is pure genre horror, with a list of tropes a mile long:
- Strange artifact comes into the possession (oho!) of an unsuspecting, thoroughly modern person
- Creepy stuff happens
- Other folks become convinced that owner of said artifact is in fact being possessed
- Newly believing protagonist(s) seek out the help of knowledgeable experts:
- university professor: provides necessary background information to identify the tradition to which the supernatural occurrences “belong”
- cultural/ritual experts: possess the knowledge and experience to actually combat the evil
- With help of experts, protagonists are able to drive out the horror–but not before they learn about themselves, about another culture, and about the power of friendship.
This is pretty much the recipe for modern supernatural horror, with a few slight tweaks given that spirit possession has different physics, as it were, than other supernatural phenomena. The Possession doesn’t venture outside of this set of rigid guidelines; its one gesture toward novelty is the fact that this particular evil spirit (it should not come as a spoiler that that is what we’re dealing with) happens to be Jewish. It also has a number of very self-conscious references to The Exorcist (one of which, taking place during the actual exorcism scene, is blatant enough to be funny).
The breakthrough moment comes when Clyde, the protagonist, seeks help from a professor (of course!), who identifies the creepy box his daughter found at a yard sale as a dybbuk box. Armed with this decontextualized chunk of wisdom, Clyde proceeds forthwith (post-haste?) to the only logical place for someone desperately in need of a Jewish stereotype: New York City. The part where Clyde drives down a street choked with ear-locked Hasidim is another of those moments when the director’s intention is unclear (this scene is funny–right? Isn’t it? No?). It’s easy to assume, at moments like these, that we’re either being let in on a little self-aware ethnic joke, or that the director is about to topple over the edge and land head-first in a steaming pile of earnest ignorance.
So, yes, instead of the Catholic church, as in The Exorcist or The Exorcism of Emily Rose, or Evangelicals, as in The Last Exorcism (which ironically is getting a sequel), this one features a Jewish supernatural entity, and a Jewish exorcist. Scholars are often eager to dismiss gimmicks like this–and it is, to some extent, a gimmick–as superficial, ignorant, even exploitative. The issue of representation gets a lot of play in scholarly circles, and with good reason: the person with the camera, after all, has a considerable amount of rhetorical power. In many instances I agree with this scholarly stance. There are certainly countless examples of film and other popular media that deliberately portray members of various cultures in negative, or condescending, or paternalistic ways.
But I don’t think The Possession is exploitative. In fact I’d argue that, where the supernatural is concerned, some of the anxieties of cultural relativism go right out the window. It is, after all, a fact that some cultures have complex and highly articulated supernatural beliefs, as well as people who are regarded as experts in dealing with supernatural phenomena. It is likewise a fact that “American society,” broadly conceived, is sufficiently secular-ish that it lacks a unified system of thought and practice where the supernatural is concerned. It is also very much a norm that Western rationalism and supernatural belief are incompatible, so the latter has no place in contemporary American society. In light of this, framing supernatural horror with the trappings of a given tradition makes a great deal of sense. How would a contemporary American atheist deal with a demon? By denying its existence? Little Linda Blair would not have fared so well if that’s what went down.
An interesting fact about The Possession (which ties in with the issue of cultural relativism) is that its exorcist, Tzadok, is played by none other than Matisyahu. He does a good job, actually. Maybe he has a future in horror–if he doesn’t get typecast.
One major flaw is the way the filmmakers have their characters learn about what’s going on. The father, Clyde, goes from mildly concerned parent to full-on I-believe-in-demons-and-got-me-a-home-exorcism-kit mode (I really enjoy making up fake hyphenated adjectives) in record time. Meanwhile, the MRI scene, in which Clyde’s ex-wife Stephanie confronts da horrah (say it like Marlon Brando), is at the opposite end of the revelation spectrum from Clyde’s. Every supernatural horror film has to have expository scenes that ultimately convince everybody involved that something supernatural is actually going on; but in trying to conform to this generic convention, the filmmakers created a scenario that abandons any remaining vestiges of subtlety in favor of a spooky image that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. I won’t ruin it by describing it in detail; but the visual aid really wasn’t necessary.
This, I think, is one of the biggest struggles in horror fiction: convincing the characters that something is actually going on. No matter the lip service we give to being progressive and open-minded, no matter how much we embrace relativism, when it comes to the supernatural–even just the more ordinary realm of organized, institutional religion–we tend (at least in the US) to err on the side of skepticism. The reasons for this are many and varied, but this simple fact means that any author or screenwriter dealing with these issues faces an uphill battle, and one in which there are few opportunities for originality. What would it take for the average American to honestly, wholeheartedly believe that his house is actually haunted by a literal ghost? Or that her daughter is possessed by a demon?
My good friend Carlea Cassyl and I have talked about this at length. She suggested that people will only be convinced by spectacle, and I think she’s absolutely right. This is why, in horror, there is inevitably a series of increasingly scary events leading to a mini-climax, an epiphany, a revelation: the moment when the protagonists finally admit that that is a werewolf and it is going to eat me. That child is actually a 3,000-year-old Sumerian demon. My neighbor is Colin Farrell– I mean, a vampire.
This is one reason, among many, why certain cliches are forgivable: because they are necessary.
The ending (I did finish it, finally) is predictable and sadly another weak point, suffering from the now-familiar overwrought CG and actors who just don’t quite know how to portray people suffering from supernaturally induced pants-ripping horror. The payoff is small; the film’s first act is really the meat, with the denouement (I’m starting to think of everything after the revelation as secondary, even the “climax”) dragging along through a buffet of saw-it-a-mile-off scares.
The Possession isn’t perfect. But it has a lot going for it, including a good performance by basset-hound Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the likable everyman dad, and two young actresses (the possessed child and her sister) who perfectly convey the sublime hateability that American pre-teens have developed into an art. 83/100.