Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Possession (Ole Bornedal, 2012)

by James Hansen

It isn’t all that surprising that Ole Bornedal’s The Possession is derivative. Exorcism movies all follow the formula set by The Exorcist, which undoubtedly remains the benchmark of the horror subgenre. Nonetheless, several recent films (The Unborn, Orphan) have found ways to blow open the category in relatively interesting, exciting ways. Unfortunately, The Possession is not one of those films – it starts too big, telegraphs nearly all its scares, and never breaks free from its box of horror movie cliches.
The Possession starts strongly enough. A creepy, wooden box sits on a shelf calling to an older woman. Soon, her mouth begins to bleed and, in true PG-13 fashion, she is barely seen being violently thrown around the room by a demonic spirit. (Nevermind why this spirit that feeds on children is attacking an old woman. Spirits have their reasons.) A short while later, a recently divorced father, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), buys the box for his youngest daughter (an effective Natasha Calis) who has come with her sister Hannah on a weekend visit. In a new house among a developing neighborhood (although there are no neighbors in sight), Emily cracks open the box. Before long, her eyes become distant, her personality changes, her room fills with a swarm of giant moths, and her inner anger transfer to her father who she stabs in the hand with a fork. 

Blame it on the divorce. The confusing thing here isn’t so much stylistic ineffectiveness – although Bornedal relies too heavily on audio crescendos punctuated by a single, deep, pounding piano key – but rather that this is all too much too soon. While the film spends time establishing the supposedly fraught relationship bewteen Clyde and his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) – Stephanie remains much too flirtacious and Clyde too attached for this to be heading anywhere other than reconciliation – some of the first things we see Emily do – sitting in the middle of her bed, staring in the distance in a room suddenly filled with angry moths – are far too extreme for the attempts at realism (“She’s acting out because you left us!”) that the script pitches. Instead, the parent’s indecision comes too slowly and becomes laughable, just as Clyde’s Google search discovery of Jewish exorcism and complete embracing of the theory comes too quickly. Similarly, too many moments build to family unrest or Emily seeming upset rather than the brooding violence and terror of her body being overtaken. 

By the film’s third act, it is already out of steam. Despite the hilarious discovery of the spirit through an MRI (finally convincing Stephanie that something is wrong) and a pretty spooky culmination of the exorcism, The Possession never really clicks. Its overemphasis on family issues along with its lack of build and repetitive stylistic techniques have it land with an all to familiar thud. 

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