LOS ANGELES – We've had zombies, demons, vampires and ghosts. Why shouldn't a dybbuk — the Judaic version of the possessing spirit — have a chance to finally shine again on the big screen? Representing a sort of equal opportunity religious variation on an all-too-familiar theme, "The Possession" is a Jewish-themed "Exorcist" that, if nothing else, should discourage the practice of buying antique wooden boxes at flea markets.
Such a box, carved with Hebrew inscriptions, causes no end of havoc in this low-rent horror film receiving a typical dog days, end of summer release. It comes into the possession of the Brenek family, or rather the splintered Brenek family, since father Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been separated from his ex-wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) for a year, causing predictable emotional difficulties for young daughters Hannah (Madison Davenport) and 10-year-old Em (Natasha Calis).
Em persuades her dad to buy her the ominous looking box, unaware that its previous owner, an elderly woman, has wound up immobilized in bed after being handled rather violently by the dybbuk inside it.
Said dybbuk soon finds a new host in the innocent young girl who, like Linda Blair's Regan, starts displaying violent, anti-social behavior. But while at first her symptoms prove hardly distinguishable from those of a typical troubled adolescent, an invasion of giant moths in her bedroom prove the need for drastic measures, or at least a good exterminator.
After a quick consultation with a professor, Clyde heads to Borough Park, Brooklyn, here depicted as so awash in Hasidim that it resembles a 19th century Polish shtetl. There he enlists the aid of a rabbi's son, Tzadok (played, in a canny bit of casting, by the Hasidic hip-hop/reggae star Matisyahu).
After a medical procedure that reveals that dybukks are visible on MRIs, they get down to the inevitable business of a Jewish exorcism, performed in perhaps the most poorly securitized, empty hospital in North America.
Director Ole Bornedal ("Nightwatch") indulges in the usual cheap scares induced by ear-shattering bursts of volume, frequently punctuating scenes with blackouts and ominous piano chords. But despite young thespian Calis' impressive ability for malevolent staring, her character is never all that frightening, with her possession often signaled by dark eye shadow that makes her look mainly like a young goth chick.
The adult performers go through their properly anguished paces with professionalism, with Morgan displaying his usual relaxed charisma and Sedgwick displaying even more levels of anger than she did as the hard-boiled deputy police chief in "The Closer." But Matisyahu, while a likable screen presence, seems to have been cast less for the quality of his acting than for his copious facial hair.
Much is made of the fact that the film is "based on a true story," with the press notes even including an excerpt from the original ad on eBay attempting to sell the infamous box. But there surely must be easier ways to drum up the price.
"The Possession," a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences. Running time: 93 minutes.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for PG-13: Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.