The Possession’s box is only half full

Mainstream American horror has a tendency to either travel down safe, slightly spooky roads or overload with gore at the cost of true, properly built suspense.  The Possession, with its teen-friendly 15 rating (PG-13 in the US), falls firmly into the former category.  Claims that it is based on a true story are partially accurate (well, possibly), but the central story remains the work of writing tandem Juliet Snowden and Stiles White.  Danish director Ole Bornedal is at the helm, yet The Possession retains a typical Hollywood approach.

The Possession arrives in cinemas 31 August

Originally entitled “The Dibbuk Box”, The Possession is about exactly that: an antique wooden box designed to entrap a demon called (in Jewish faith), a dibbuk.  When it falls into the hands of a fractured family, the small, cursed chest threatens to tear them further apart once its contents are disturbed.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan is Clyde, a recently divorced father who can’t seem to please his two teenage daughters, Emily (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport).  The idea that Clyde has neglected his daughters in favour of his coaching job is more paid lip-service to, rather than properly developed, as the film invests in his depiction as the sympathetic protagonist.  As Clyde’s ex-wife, Kyra Sedgwick spends the majority of the film being cross at him while casually flaunting her new boyfriend.  These interpersonal relationships provide the canvas for Bornedal’s brush strokes of mild creepiness, as Em’s obsession with the box slowly sees her become consumed by the possession so gently hinted at by the film’s title.

The Possession serves up a familiar formula of jump scares and overly dramatic scoring, as the possession slowly takes hold.  The tone is kept sufficiently menacing, despite actually delivering little by way of truly disturbing, or even surprising, developments.  Thankfully then, The Possession never takes itself too seriously, frequently allowing for laughs; most of them intentional.  One standout bit of dialogue about touching the box momentarily gives pause for consideration of exactly where The Possession might be headed (don’t worry, it doesn’t go there) before the giggles set in.  Heroically positioned, Morgan is exceptionally likable as the beleaguered father struggling to save his family.  In doing so, he recruits the aid of a Manhattan rabbi Tzadok, giving Orthodox reggae star Matisyahu a chance to shine on screen.  His contributions are remarkably enjoyable as he plays a pivotal role in the film’s most intense scenes.  As the primary victim, Calis is believable enough in a role that could have quickly landed in the realm of silly nonsense.  The make-up (largely sported by Calis)  and practical effects utilised are solid, if unspectacular, as the line between foreboding and ridiculous is carefully walked.

Yet, there is no shortage of goofiness to be found in The Possession.  Despite an enjoyable turn of events, the overly tidy finale illustrates how hesitant such horror films are to get their hands dirty in order to establish a true threat.  Without necessary sacrifice, it proves difficult to feel any heightened sense of tension at any time during Bornedal’s film.  While The Possession is a fun take on the exorcism sub-genre of horror, it’s more a friendly pat on the shoulder than a spine-chillingly light touch in the darkness.  6.5/10

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