In "The Possession," a new horror movie from Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert's Ghost House production shingle, a young girl becomes infatuated and then, yes, possessed by a dubious Jewish spirit that had been kept imprisoned in a wooden box. As far as horror movie premises go, this one is pretty outlandish, even for a genre defined by chainsaw-wielding madmen, haunted hotels, and all manner of slippery, otherworldly creatures. The fact that the movie claims to be based on a true story doesn't exactly legitimize anything, either. And what could have been a Jewish take on "The Exorcist," full of existential dread and the violent collision of the new world and old faith, ends up coming across, instead, like a lesser (though considerably longer) episode of "The X-Files."
Like any good episode of serialized television, it starts off with a little teaser. In it, an old woman is driven mad by an admittedly menacing-looking wooden box before she finally comes towards it with a hammer and then is driven backwards by some unseen force (this is the same unseen force that dislodged the words that had just appeared on screen to tell you that the story is based on a true-life tale), her face melting like a puttied stroke victim, before crashing around the room. It's a violent, jarring opening sequence and one that puts you in the right frame of mind – it's very similar to the opening of Raimi's "Drag Me To Hell," although, sadly, the comparisons to that film's brilliantly apocalyptic, rocket-fueled scare-a-thon begin and end there. "The Possession" plays it painfully straight, even though the entire movie is based around living humans' relationship with a talking haunted box.
Strange things start to happen around the new house, lending a kind of haunted house vibe to the movie without ever engaging in the traditional dynamics of that particular sub-genre, with the refrigerator door opening on its own accord (for a minute you expect E.T. to peek out) and a bizarre infestation of moths swarming the bathroom and bedroom. What's more, young Emily becomes increasingly infatuated with the box, taking it with her to school (where it inflicts some after-hours pain on her teacher, in what is probably an unintentional nod to Joe Dante's "Gremlins") and letting it change both her personality and appearance (at some point she starts dressing and doing her hair like a ghost from a Japanese horror movie). Things reach a point where something must be done, which we're all very thankful for because we're really eager for Anton Sanko's overactive score to calm the fuck down. After doing some research on the internet, Clyde thinks that he's pinpointed the bad mojo as being the work of a Dybbuk, a Jewish ghoul, and you know how he knows this? Because he prints out a document called "Jewish Exorcism (How To)." Yes, seriously.
But mostly, "The Possession" is interested in silly horror movie tropes, and soon Morgan is traveling to Brooklyn (which got a hearty chuckle out of our Manhattan audience) to find a rabbi to assist him in the exorcism of his young daughter. He makes a tearful plea for someone to help him out, but we kept wondering why he didn't go back to the house where he got the damn box from and ask them where it came from. That would certainly answer some, if not all, of his questions. Finally, a likable young rabbi (played by Hasidic rapper Matisyahu – no, we're not kidding) agrees to take on the case, spurred on by ancient righteousness.
You expect more from the film, especially considering that it was directed by Ole Bornedal, a Danish filmmaker who helmed the exceptional original "Nightwatch" (plus the less exceptional, Soderbergh-affiliated remake) and a really terrific sci-fi horror movie from a couple of years ago called "The Substitute" (which was released on home video in the United States thanks to Raimi and Tapert). But here everything feels limp – simultaneously over and undercooked. It doesn't leave much of an impression and every scare seems to be either some lame jump scare or a fright inflicted by the shrill score. You can feel that he is trying to make it something more, and while it would have been great to have the Jewish equivalent of "The Exorcist," this sure as hell isn't it. [C-]