In a subgenre so wholeheartedly indebted to 1973 father of all frighteners The Exorcist it’s very hard to offer up any genuine surprises, short of the unexpected trope subversion that was 2010’s The Last Exorcism. It’s even harder to confound expectation when you immediately panel beat all the ambiguity of it with a title like The Rite, The Devil Inside or The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, and feats of clearly otherworldly strength, levitation, pre-natural knowledge and barking in dead languages.
The Possession, the big, bold and unashamedly blockbuster 2012 effort by director Ole Bornedal and produced by Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell‘s Sam Raimi goes one further in its mission to not upset the popcorn-shovellers with scenes they won’t understand – giving us a prologue sequence where an elderly woman attempts to destroy a mysterious box and is flung across the room by an unseen force.
When the old woman’s son has a yard sale, the mysterious Hebrew-inscribed devil box is promptly picked up by Em (Natasha Calis), the youngest daughter of recently separated father Clyde (Watchmen and Supernatural‘s Jeffrey Dean Morgan), opening she begins to hear voices and commune with an imaginary friend while CG devil moths flutter around her, falling just short of spelling out THIS IS NOT COOL, BRO with their little bodies.
While this predictable communion with Pazuzu goes on, the rest of the cast go through the motions of underlining the divide in the family by eating forbidden pizza with dad, and badmouthing the new dentist boyfriend like something from the preamble of Mrs Doubtfire.
If this is supposed to lend credence to the later subplot when everyone worries Emily may be emotionally damaged by the separation, or Clyde may be abusing her, it’s all totally bereft of tension or uncertainty because we’re already established that the real problem is demonic possession – the clue is join the title. At one point even the film itself gives up on this half-hearted interlude and decides to abruptly bring sceptical mother Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) up to speed by showing them a screaming demon face in Em’s MRI scan, which if anything is even sillier than it sounds.
Raimi’s influence is in a whole lot of Drag Me To Hell-style spectacle as people get driven away from interfering with the precious devil box by Omen-like supernatural assaults. While this simmers into a base level of enjoyment when capital-S stuff is happening, when it’s not, and everyone is sitting around talking about touching the box, not touching the box and where the box is, it can only ever be deeply dull because there’s zero ambiguity or tension to play on, a pretty crippling flaw when fear relies so heavily on the unknown.
Morgan convinces as the desperate father, the scene in which he pleads for help from a shadowy room of orthodox Jewish scholars is genuinely emotive, as is his anguish at being accused of abuse and pushed away from the people he loves. Purely out of cliché fatigue is quite fun to hear a bit of Yiddish and Hebrew spoken, and have the dark corners of Jewish mysticism played upon, instead of dog collars and In Domine Spiritus Sancti, and it perhaps underlines the need, especially given the growing importance of international markets, for horror to recognise a little more of the rich palette of global mythology available to it.
There’s a good final You Shall Not Pass! showdown exorcism too, that owes far more to films like Constantine than it does the subgenre ‘s untouchable progenitor, although the predictable micro-twist and return of the shoddy CG saps some of the momentum from the spectacle.
Ultimately, for all the curiosity provoked by the few things it does differently and the delight at the few things it does very well, The Possession peaks at entertaining hokum, and baring the occasional slowdive back down to boring, largely stays there.
Like its easily dispelled antagonist, The Possession is far from captivating.