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Movie Review: ‘The Possession’

The Possession (horror film)


Originally released in theaters in 2012, The Possession could be seen as a Jewish The Exorcist, as the story takes as its inspiration the dybbuk box and replaces the traditional spirit with a demon with a penchant for possessing the innocent. Although the film received a lukewarm reception, the film is certainly worth one sitting. The Possession may not be The Exorcist, but overall the film works well. It is worth noting that the movie was produced by Sam Raimi, although his involvement feels minimal.

Poster for the horror flick "The Possession."
Ghost House Pictures
Cover art for "The Possession" DVD.
Ghost House Pictures

Directed by Ole Bornedal, The Possession centers on what is called a dybbuk box. According to Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is a restless spirit, typically someone who died without accomplishing a certain task in life. In some instances, the task carried with it malicious intent.

In the movie, the dybbuk box becomes something more sinister. Instead of a spirit, this box contains a demon by the name of Abyzou. In Jewish tradition, this female demon is identified with Lilith and was often blamed for miscarriages and the deaths of children.

The story begins with an older woman standing before the dybbuk box, which seems to be psychologically tormenting her. Soon things become overtly physical, with the box telepathically attacking the woman until she is almost dead, only to be discovered by her son. The poor man inadvertently puts the box up as part of a yard sale, and the box attracts a young girl by the name of Em (Natasha Calis), whose father Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and mother Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) have recently divorced. The box quickly seduces Em, whispering things that only she can hear, and her father gives in and purchases it along with some other items while the old woman (heavily bandaged and bed-ridden) watches in horror.

With plenty of tension still visible because of the divorce, Em’s parents are too distracted to notice the subtle changes taking place in Em. However, sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) takes notice, but she too is ignored. After all, Clyde (a high school basketball coach) is working on a return to the college or professional leagues and Stephanie has a new man in her life and is also working on establishing a new jewelry-making business.

Em successfully opens the dybbuk box and finds some weird items inside, such as a tooth, a desiccated moth, several wooden figurines, and a ring that she begins to wear. Slowly, Em becomes increasingly violent, stabbing her father with a fork and attacking a student at school when he becomes a little too curious about the contents of her backpack. At one point, Clyde’s house becomes infested with moths and Em begins to see things, like the fingers of another person emerging from the back of her throat.

Because of Em’s violent outburst at school, the school principal and teacher summon Em’s parents to a conference, and it is here that Clyde begins to connect Em’s odd behavior with the dybbuk box. However, Stephanie blames Em’s behavior on Clyde and begins to work on separating him from his daughter. That night, while the teacher is grading papers in her classroom, she is attacked by the box, which telepathically throws her through a glass window.

When confronted about the box, Em tells Clyde that an invisible woman lives inside it. Em then begins to openly talk to the box in Clyde’s presence. Terrified by what he sees, Clyde attempts to get rid of the box, only to have Em run through empty streets at night to get it back. Such behavior seals Clyde’s doom, as Stephanie has her lawyer work to suspend all of Clyde’s parental rights.

Horrified by the box and what little he has seen of its powers, Clyde conducts some research and discovers that the box has Jewish characters written all over it. He takes the box to a college professor, who explains that this dybbuk box contains an ancient Jewish demon. Clyde then takes the box to a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, where a group of men tell him that his daughter is possessed by the demon but that the conflict is in God’s hands. However, a young Jew by the name of Tzadok (played by Matisyahu, an American reggae and alternative rock musician) agrees to help Clyde exorcize the demon and place it back into the box.

The final reel of the movie centers on a now very sick Em at a hospital, where Stephanie witnesses the demon literally hiding inside her daughter’s insides (through an MRI). Now convinced that her daughter is possessed, she agrees to help Clyde and Matisyahu battle the demon.

Although comparisons with The Exorcist are certainly expected, The Possession establishes its own distinct track and makes for a compelling film. The film’s flaws include the exorcism itself, as well as the hospital location, which seems a little too antiseptic a setting for a battle between good and evil. Moreover, director Ole Bornedal relies too much on horror clichés, at one point having Em run about and hiding in various dark places of the hospital, with the whole family in pursuit. The movie would have done much better using a more claustrophobic setting and by sticking to the Jewish themes, which I found captivating.

Despite some missteps, The Possession is one of the more compelling and successful riffs on The Exorcist. Fans of possession movies should really enjoy this one. The DVD I own came with two commentary tracks, a short documentary on a supposedly real dybbuk box, and some theatrical trailers.

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