There’s a sequence in “The Possession,” a new horror movie from producer Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man,” “Evil Dead”), that recalls a scene in “The Exorcist.” In the latter movie, Ellen Burstyn carries a lit candelabrum into her attic to investigate something strange. I remember the scene because the flames suddenly flaring up startled me.
In “The Possession,” a father follows his demonically possessed daughter into an unlit morgue. To be able to see, he whips out his cell phone and brings up the home screen.
My, how times have changed, at least in how we light up the dark. What hasn’t changed is the creepiness of possessed children. Linda Blair as Regan was sinister nearly 40 years ago, and Natasha Calis as Emily has her moments in “The Possession.”
There are some key differences between the two movies, however. Instead of plumbing the depths of Roman Catholicism for another demon, Raimi and his director, Ole Bornedal, take a refreshing turn down a relatively untraveled road: traditional Judaism.
The central conceit is a good one: According to the movie, which is allegedly based on true events, Jews believe they can cast unruly spirits into a box called a Dybbuk. They then seal the box to prevent anyone from opening it and setting the demon free.
If someone does open the box, the demon will latch onto that person and eventually possess him or her.
It is unfortunate, then, that Emily finds a Dybbuk at a yard sale. Inside the house, an elderly woman wrapped in bandages sees her pick up the box and begins screaming. (I will leave you to discover why the woman was wrapped in bandages.)
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. After a riveting opening scene that establishes the Dybbuk as a bad thing to have in one’s home, director Bornedal eases into the narrative by introducing a splintered family: The father, Clyde; the mother, Stephanie; and their daughters, Hannah and Emily. Mom and dad have split and the daughters are less than thrilled about the arrangement.
Instead of giving us a stock scene of the parents arguing as dad picks them up for the weekend, Bornedal goes for something more real: bickering by two people who still care about each other but forgot how to get along. Throughout the movie, he builds certain scenes not around scares but making the characters seem real and giving us reasons to care about them. By the time the demon began moving on Emily, I was emotionally invested in these people.
When making a horror movie, you work within an economy of time; if you take a few minutes to develop your characters, you’ll have fewer minutes for scares. This isn’t a problem for Bornedal, who delivers several memorable scenes involving the manifestation of the spirit. After the parents finally reach the point where they believe they’re dealing with a demon and seek the help of a Hasidic Jew, Bornedal takes off his gloves for a memorable finale.
There are some awkward moments early on as Bornedal tries to shoehorn in some scary stuff too soon, and certain things don’t work as well as others – such as the dark makeup and grey clothes Emily wears whenever the spirit is controlling her. I also had to think my way through some of the movie’s logic, such as how the spirit was able to toss some people around like ragdolls but seems incapacitated during the climax. (I attributed this to the effects of the exorcism.) But whenever “The Possession” teeters on the edge of silly, the actors do a great job of selling the moment and keeping us grounded in the story.
Many horror movies today are a parade of set pieces, with the filmmakers rushing from one jump to the next. “The Possession” tells a good story and mixes in its hair-raising hijinks along the way. It isn’t as scary as some films in this genre, but it is well worth seeing.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences. Three stars out of four. Email David Laprad at firstname.lastname@example.org.