The virtual Roman Catholic monopoly on exorcism movies is decisively broken by “The Possession,” a stylish but silly horror picture that offers the rite in Hebrew rather than Latin but otherwise doesn’t appreciably alter the formula that William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin established nearly four decades ago. If not the worst example of the devil-made-me-do-it genre, it’s not an outstanding one, either.
Ten-year old Emily (Natasha Calis) and her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) are understandably upset over the divorce of their parents, basketball coach Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and jewelry designer Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), but they’re trying to make the best of it, spending weekdays with mom and her dentist boyfriend Brett (Grant Show) and weekends with dad in his new house. On an excursion with him, Emily finds a handsome wooden box with Hebrew letters on it at a garage sale and Clyde buys it for her. That’s an unwise decision, as a prologue, in which the former owner (Anna Hagan) is battered to a bloody pulp by the thing, tells us.
It’s not long before the box opens in Emily’s room and strange things begin to happen. An infestation of moths takes over Clyde’s new house. Emily stabs him with her fork at the breakfast table. When a classmate touches the box, she assaults him. And when—frightened by the girl’s suggestion that she’s talking to somebody in the box—Clyde tries to trash it, Emily claims that he’s assaulted her, resulting in a custody dispute which causes him to lose visitation rights.
But he doesn’t give up easily, and a visit to a Hasidic rabbi reveals that what he’s dealing with is a box that imprisoned a dybbuk, a malignant wayward demon whose purpose is to take over a pure human specimen. Emily is obviously its target. Meanwhile, Stephanie is convinced that something’s seriously wrong with her daughter when she finds the girl eating raw meat from the fridge, and Emily proves it when she attacks Brett (in an odd scene in which the girl suddenly turns intro a female version of Eddie Munster and Brett races off with a mouthful of blood, never to reappear).
All this leads to the local hospital, where an MRI reveals the presence of the dybbuk in Emily’s chest—a nice thing to know, in case you ever need confirmation of possession—and Clyde brings in Tzadok (Matisyahu, who has some of the laid-back charm of John Corbett), the son of that Hasidic rabbi, to attempt an exorcism. The last reel, though elegantly shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, is narratively pretty much a mess—something that he and director Ole Bornedal, who shows a flair for generating suspense out of thin material (though most of the real scares are simply functions of Anton Sanko’s score, which growls ominously throughout and then blares out at strategic moments), try to cover up by resorting to that hoariest of devices, strobe lighting. Otherwise, though, the effects are reasonably effective, though—once again—nothing particularly innovative.
The cast is certainly a step up from what one usually encounters in this kind of genre film, with Morgan and Sedgwick keeping very straight faces throughout, though they do tend to chew the scenery in their characters’ stressful passages. But the picture’s modest credibility actually depends a great deal on young Calis, who’s frankly no Linda Blair but certainly gets a workout and keeps on ticking to the bitter end. The real find is Matisyahu, who projects an attitude of bemusement that some audience members might share.
And what moral might one carry from this diabolical tale? Beware of what you buy at garage sales. And, in this case, at the ticket counter.