Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Scary Good

If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.

This was a perfectly reasonable piece of advice when William Edward Hickson penned it in the 1800's, and it remains so today. This is one of the reasons why, after sitting through one of the worst horror films this decade in The Apparition, Todd and I were willing to give the genre another shot, this time with a familiar face behind the scenes. Sure, co-producer Sam Raimi (He of Xena and Spider-Man fame) might not have been creatively behind the filming of The Possession, which was led by Danish director Ole Bornedal; anyone expecting this movie to be the next Evil Dead deserves whatever disappointment they feel. But while it's been a few years since Raimi has made anything of note (I'll reserve judgment of the upcoming Wizard of Oz prequel), he's done enough over the past couple of decades to earn some goodwill from his audiences. Besides, Todd still had a hankering for horror, and as The Apparition proved itself nowhere close to scary, we thought a mulligan was in order. But could this Jewish horror title do what its predecessor could not?

She just watched The Apparition, too...
Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (Kyra Sedgwick) are a couple going through separation. Clyde is having a hard enough time being away from his life, and is hurt that she has begun seeing others. Meanwhile, he dotes on his two daughters, whom he takes on during weekends. When the youngest, Em (Natasha Calis) buys a strange box on a yard sale trip, she begins to obsess over opening the seemingly sealed box to discover what is inside. Soon, she begins to change, and Clyde notices mysterious events transpiring around her. It's soon evident that Em has been possessed by a Dybbuk, a Jewish demon that had been trapped in the box she found. Now despite Clyde being in well over his head, he will do anything in his power to protect his daughter from the unknown creature that has claimed her body for itself.

The Thriller flash-mob was a little under-staffed...
Now, if you're saying "Hey, that just sounds like a Jewish clone of The Exorcist," congratulations! You've come across the one major flaw of the whole entire movie! It's absolutely true that in essence the whole tale is built from the debris of older titles. In fact, with the exception of the Dybbuk box and the demon trapped within (and even a demon trapped in a box is a familiar fable), and any and all references to Judaism, there's nothing here you haven't seen in just about every movie concerning demonic possession ever released. Every scene has at least one reference to lore that seems intimately familiar, and all the familiar horror tropes are there: locusts, a cursed ring, the black person dies first, the campiest music, false endings, "This isn't right!", lots and LOTS of insects, a professor unnaturally amused by the whole backstory, and a creepy kid. While the Catholic church has held the monopoly on exorcism films since their inception, the Jewish seem to want to make up for lost time by including every minor detail from other movies in making their own. Bad things even happen to the Priest brought in to perform the proper ceremony (though it's a Rabbi, here).

See, now that? That just isn't right...
Of course, if there was ever a movie that proves that being a UNIQUE film and being a GOOD film are two completely different things, it's The Possession. Like this year's The Amazing Spider-Man, The Possession is grounded in what we as audiences have covered before (and not all that long in the past), but the overall quality of the film is so good that such doesn't matter much at all. There are several reasons for this. The first is that The Possession doesn't take itself all that seriously. While the characters act as though everything happening is the worst thing in the world, the complete familiarity of the situation means that the audience can focus on the unexpected humor, campy acting and situations, and cliched music that feel fun and fresh with the complete lack of high expectations.

The movie's lesson to parents? Avoid yard sales!
But The Possession is hardly all fun and no scares; the creature effects are actually really effective for a low-budget film. Sure, it's no Insidious, but very few movies can be. Scenes drip with creepy atmosphere, and the few moments we see the demon itself manifest in its host are among the most hair-raising of 2012. This is all accented by the unnatural talents of young actress Natasha Calis, who makes this film with her out-of-this-world performance. Where she finds the ability to go from cute, normal kid to harbinger of the apocalypse I don't know, but I certainly hope that this isn't the last time we witness her in action. Wherever Bornedal found her, he lucked out in perfectly casting a role that was in danger of being a cheap Linda Blair copy with anybody else in the role.

Holy men rarely see the end of exorcism flicks.
The rest of the cast is more than adequate, and part of that reason might be the casting of Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the lead role. Known for effective support roles in Grey's Anatomy, Supernatural and Watchmen,. Morgan does a great job playing the everyman, for which this part definitely qualifies. While he plays the effective lead Sedgwick, Grant Show and Jewish reggae musician Matisyahu do effective work in backing him up. Each character feels organic, and though their fates are as predictable as the sunrise, each brings something to the table to make sure they are more than fodder for the machine. Also, not to be forgotten is Madison Davinport as Clyde and Stephanie's elder daughter Hannah. She's mainly a scream queen, but plays well enough off of her fictional sister and parents that her relatively small contribution is much respected.

Filming in a wind tunnel might not have been the best idea...
Sure, you know what's coming at all times. Yes, the whole thing is one Catholic priest away from a full-blown case of plagiarism. Yeah, it's campy and just a little silly. But it's because - and not in spite of - these things that I ended up enjoying The Possession. The film is acutely aware of how much it borrows from other sources, and plays with that honesty for all it's worth, which turns out to be quite a bit. It doesn't hurt that it's also a creepy, fun, and at times gross-out horror flick that could be well worth a re-watch when it becomes available on DVD. Raimi might not have been the master storyteller behind the scenes, but Bornedal proves himself a capable director whose future efforts will definitely garner a look. If you're a fan of scary movies, this is one that will be well worth your time.

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