First published by Little White Lies
Ole Bornedal’s The Possession opens with the words: “The following is based on a true story.” Now let’s be clear: there really was a wooden wine case (inscribed with Hebrew letters) which was brought to the US from Spain by a Polish Holocaust survivor; and after she died, decades later, at age 103, it fell into the hands of a succession of purchasers who each became convinced it was a cursed object. Its first buyer, Kevin Mannis, subsequently put it up for auction on eBay with a spooky tale as part of his sales pitch; and a later buyer, Jason Haxton, ended up writing a book about the case’s history and his own experiences, entitled The Dibbuk Box [link to: http://tsup.truman.edu/item.asp?itemId=453].
Yet while both Mannis and Haxton served as ‘production consultants’ on The Possession, and Juliet Snowden and Stiles White’s screenplay supposedly takes its inspiration from an article on the box by journalist Leslie Gornstein, this film is true not to the facts of the case, but to the rather different story told by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. For here too a young daughter (Natasha Calis’ Em) sees her body becoming the arena for supernatural conflict; people on her periphery are injured or die in unusual circumstances; and where medicine and science fail, a religious figure (played by the rapper Matisyahu) is brought in from outside to banish the evil within.
It is an overfamiliar formula, refreshed only superficially by its new grounding in Orthodox Hasidism and Yiddish folklore. Even if the devil of the piece is a Semitic dibbuk rather than a Sumerian demon, and even if it bears a strong facial resemblance to the ‘Gypsy’ witch from producer Sam Raimi’s previous Drag Me To Hell, this still feels like an entirely derivative addition to the already well-trodden exorcism subgenre, where only the names have been changed. Although the ‘true story’ of the Dibbuk box is full of speculation and superstition, it does not stretch to including such grotesquely sensational cinematic touches as hands that emerge from people’s mouths or homunculi that are X-rayed inside people’s bodies.
Perhaps the strangest – and funniest – thing about The Possession is how relatively unperturbed everyone appears to be by their encounters with the irrational, and how inconsequential most of the devilish irruptions prove. When Em suddenly stabs the hand of her father Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with a fork, he is annoyed, but nothing more. When her odious would-be stepfather Brett (Grant Snow) is visited by an even more damaging paranormal force, he simply reverses out of the scene, never to appear on screen or be mentioned again. When an MRI scan reveals a large creature living inside young Em’s body, the doctors present seem not to react at all, let alone with any surprise. All this indifference creates an atmosphere where for viewers too it becomes difficult to engage with the dramas and perils presented on screen, or to imagine that any of it really amounts to anything important. This is slickly made production-line horror that never attempts to do more than merely go through the motions – and not even actors of the calibre of Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick (as Em’s mother Stephanie) are able to bring it to life.
At least, though, you can entertain yourself with the psychosexual subtext of a young girl finding her ‘box’ and opening it for the first time, only to discover that suddenly everyone is interested in poking around in there for themselves and removing all trace of the new woman emerging within. The ‘true story’ here is of a middle-class America terrified of what might become of its daughters in a secularised world where the norms of family life are disrupted by divorce and distance. When baby starts growing up, just blame any undesirable changes on a dibbuk…
© Anton Bitel