By KIRBY MCCORD
“The Exorcist” was one of the most truly frightening movies ever made. Based on the best-selling William Peter Blatty novel, the 1973 William Friedkin film established the standard by which all such films are now measured. Notable imitators “The Amityville Horror” (1979), “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005), and even “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) follow the same pattern, i.e., basing the film on a purported true story of demonic possession. The latest film to follow in these footsteps is iconoclastic Danish horror director Ole Bornedal’s (“Deliver Us from Evil,” “The Substitute”) “The Possession.”
The story of “The Possession” opens rather slowly, revealing the sadly normal lives of the recently divorced Clyde and Stephanie and their young daughters Hannah and Em. They are trying to get on with their lives: Stephanie is romantically involved with a dentist; Clyde has bought a new house and is pursuing new job opportunities; and the girls are just trying to adjust to joint custody. Then Em obtains a mysterious antique wooden box at a garage sale. Strange events begin to unfold and Em’s buoyant personality becomes violent and brooding. Clyde soon sees the box as the key to his daughter’s ugly transformation and seeks help from a community of Hassidic Jews who identify the box as the container of a demon. The rabbis and elders refuse Clyde’s pleas, but one young man, although inexperienced, agrees to assist and try to drive the demon back into the box, leading to a climactic exorcism that endangers everyone’s lives.
One of the things that makes “The Possession” watchable, in spite of its very familiar story, is the acting. The star of the film is little Natasha Calis (TV’s “The Firm”) as Em; she is truly mesmerizing as the possessed child. The role calls for a wide range of emotions and Miss Calis delivers very convincingly; she appears alternately and genuinely happy, playful, angry, sad, frightened, and yes, demonic (although this last is a little over-the-top). Linda Blair received rave reviews (and an Academy Award nomination) for her performance in “The Exorcist,” but she is not nearly as compelling at Miss Calis’ presentation here. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Watchmen”) portrays Clyde as a sad-eyed everyman; his is a sympathetic but not very charismatic presence on screen. Kyra Sedgewick (TV’s “The Closer”) plays Stephanie, subtly revealing the depth of the divorced mother’s pain and the resolve to carry on. These three carry “The Possession” and draw the audience into the story. Other roles (particularly a goofy professor) are laughably bad.
The major drawback to the movie is the predictability of everything in it. It is almost an identical rehash of “The Exorcist:” an insouciant little girl from a divorced family is possessed by a demon, threatening her life and the lives of all those around her; a rogue cleric (this time Jewish instead of Catholic) agrees to take on the case when medical science fails to find an answer; and the demon, using the little girl’s body and other supernatural and plague-like phenomena fights those attempting the exorcism (allowing for some fairly interesting special effects). This leads to the key problem with any horror movie in which nothing is unexpected: it fails to be scary. To be truly terrifying, a horror movie must present unforeseen events in either a creepy setting or it must achieve sudden horrific surprise. “The Possession” does neither.
I still recommend “The Possession” simply because of the performance of Natasha Calis. She carries the film. Just don’t expect the unexpected and don’t anticipate being truly frightened.