With Natasha Calis, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Madison Davenport, Matisyahu. Written by Juliet Snowden & Stiles White. Directed by Ole Bornedal. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences). 92 minutes.
Movies that open on the Friday of Labor Day weekend are usually dead on arrival. THE POSSESSION turns out to be the exception to the rule. It’s an intelligent horror story about demonic possession that manages both an original twist and genuinely sympathetic characters. It’s the sort of film where you get a few good scares and then say, “Well, that was better than I was expecting.”
Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) are divorced, with their daughters Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Em (Natasha Calis) shuttling back-and-forth between them. Clyde is a basketball coach and a loving Dad if a bit lax about the rules and restrictions Mom wants to impose. He’s just bought a new house in a seemingly abandoned development and, one day, stops by a yard sale to pick up some items he needs. Em, the younger girl, is attracted to a wooden box which her father buys for her.
The box is covered with Hebrew writing which no one notices until strange things happen. Moths start infesting the house. Em starts acting weirder and weirder. When Clyde throws the box away she goes berserk and finally they have to call in the exorcist. What makes it interesting is that the exorcist is not who you expect. It’s not a Catholic priest. Instead it’s Tzadok, played by Jewish reggae/rap star Matisyahu. He’s the son of a Chassid rebbe in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn.
It turns out that Em is possessed not simply by a demon but by a dybbuk, a demon out of East European Jewish folklore. This isn’t quite the traditional legend. (To get that you have to seek out the 1937 Yiddish film “The Dybbuk.”) However, the folklore is treated respectfully and when Tzadok and Clyde and the rest of the family face down the demon, it’s effectively scary and creepy.
The Jewish spin on what’s usually a Catholic story in horror movies would be enough to make “The Possession” stand out. What makes this a better than ordinary film is that we actually care about the characters. Morgan is quite good as Clyde, making us seeing him as a caring individual, both to his players and to his kids, while Sedgwick has to walk a tightrope as the mother and ex-wife, sometimes being unsympathetic but never turning into a cardboard villain. Calis is especially good as the possessed girl, turning in a performance that can be favorably compared to the gold standard for this kind of role, Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”
“The Possession” isn’t a masterpiece. It’s merely a solid horror entry that doesn’t insult our intelligence and provides several surprises. For a Labor Day weekend release, it’s nothing short of extraordinary.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.