*Note: This review was originally written in July of this year, but not included in the Summer of Horror series. As a result, some references may be outdated.
I had to Google the definition of a word that kept appearing in review blurbs for The Possession – “hoary”. Meaning “old, well-tread, played out, unoriginal, etc.”. It’s not necessarily the word I would have used to describe the movie myself (given that I didn’t know the definition – only the context), but I did note early in the runtime that several of the modern haunting/demonic possession movie clichés were popping up. It actually inspired me to finally write an article compiling and defining them all.
It begins “at the end” for another character we don’t know and don’t care about, acting as a sneak peek to bring us up to speed on the power and malevolence of the film’s antagonist – a cliché used in such films as Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the Evil Dead remake, and even Oculus. In this case, the MacGuffin is a wooden box, and the wooden box houses a demon. The demon has a familiar, demonic-sounding name (Abizu) and a familiar agenda (possess a young girl). Young girls, of course, being the most susceptible to possession in horror movie land. The parents are recently divorced, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick, and the divorce subplot itself provides a fairly interesting real-world explanation for certain plot logic concerns (demonic possession probably not particularly high on a list of explanations for sudden behavioral issues in a child when divorce is in the picture).
Naturally, the symptoms of possession start small and gradually escalate to “get a priest right now” proportions, and if things are starting to sound a little too much like The Exorcist (and they do), know that a Catholic priest isn’t going to be much help, for this particular demon happens to be in the domain of Judaism. A small diversion from the formula perhaps, but it’s welcome.
After the requisite Consulting the Experts scene (a conversation with a supremely hammy world religions teacher so versed in Jewish demonology he doesn’t even need to consult the literature), our hero sets out to find a willing Jew to perform an exorcism on his daughter. As if to tick off another box on the checklist of required demon movie plot points, there’s initially a high degree of reluctance from everyone qualified to perform the exorcism, but a plucky young rabbi is up to the challenge. Of all people, he’s played by Matisyahu(!) This I did not discover until the end credits.
How things play out from here is not hard to predict. Ultimately, The Possession could be cynically summed up as “The Exorcist but Jewish”, however, the effectiveness of a horror movie doesn’t have everything to do with how original the premise is. I’ve always found that there is a lot of overlap between haunted house horror movies and demonic possession ones – often to the point of being unclear which you’re actually watching. But the tropes shared by those two genres have always been very effective at unnerving me, and The Possession was no different. Tension is built and released at the proper intervals. Creepy imagery starts out subtle and builds the atmosphere of dread before going balls out towards the end, and several of the centerpiece horror scenes hit the mark dead center. My favorite involves an MRI machine, and comes dangerously close to being cheesy, but it gave me the willies.
Finally, the ending, being the typical point that makes or breaks a good horror movie, mostly delivers. Without giving spoilers, I’ll say that the worst ending clichés are avoided. There is no 4th Wall-breaking stinger at the very least.
At the time of this writing The Possession was available to stream on Netflix, and was watched spontaneously. If expectations are kept at the moderate setting, and possession horror is your bag, it’s well worth the watch.