The latest English language film from Danish director Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch, Deliver Us From Evil) attempts to put a new spin on the familiar demonic possession yarn, replacing the more common Catholic setting with themes from Judaism. The script, from writing partners Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (Boogeyman, Knowing), was inspired by a true story that centred on a bizarre wooden wine container, covered with inscriptions from the Torah, which apparently contained the spirit of a malevolent Jewish demon, known as a dybbuk.
In the film, 12-year-old Em Brenek discovers a dybbuk box in a yard sale after its previous owner is incapacitated in mysterious circumstances. She takes the container home and at first struggles to open it. When she eventually does discover the hidden latch, Em's behaviour takes a horrifying swing towards the Regan MacNeil school of acting out. At first, Em's family and friends fail to suspect her behaviour is in any way connected to the supernatural. Em's parents, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), have recently divorced, forcing Em and older sister Hannah to contend not only with feuding parents, but Dad's new house in the middle of nowhere and Mum's already territorial new boyfriend. In fact it is not until Em has stabbed her father with a fork and invited a moth infestation into their home that her family begins to take notice.
Once the true root of the problem has been established and Clyde reaches out to a young rabbi (reggae/folk singer Matisyahu) for help, the film does display a notable commitment towards exploring Jewish folklore and distancing itself from the familiarity of William Friedkin's The Exorcist, a film that continues to hold strong over this horror sub-genre nearly 40 years on. However, for many this exploration into the darker side of Judaism will come as too little too late. The film spends an incredibly long time exploring the fractured dynamics within the family, most notably Clyde's frustrations with being uprooted and forced out of his own home, as well as the speed with which Stephanie has begun a new relationship, and as a result, further backstory is fast-tracked in favour of staging audacious moments of demonic unruliness.
The upside of all this is that the film gives its audience plenty of time to enjoy its cast, and young Natasha Calis is particularly impressive as the increasingly troubled Em. She may very well be called upon too often to stand and scowl in that way little possessed girls are want to do in movies, but she is also able to deliver a powerful yet sympathetic performance between the clichés and predictable story beats. While there are a few moments of comic relief interspersed throughout - mostly coming from Morgan's tough-yet-wounded Clyde - The Possession never veers far from formula and can only muster a couple of truly innovative and creepy visual gags that are likely to linger long in the mind.
Bornedal has proved more than capable of creating atmosphere, scares and strong character-based dramas in the past, and with Sam Raimi included in the film's long roster of producers, one would've thought there was fun to be had in The Possession. Sadly the film plays far too safe, staging a series of increasingly loud and CG-heavy sequences, intended to scare and thrill, but often evoking little more than a shrug and a sniff. The script ambles its way towards a wholly unspectacular and religiously non-specific finale the likes of which we have seen before countless times. In the end we are left possessed by little more than a sense of disappointment that this subject matter has yet to be given the overhaul it really needs if we are ever to escape the clutches of The Exorcist.