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In “The Possession,” another little girl from a broken, middle-class home becomes a demon’s plaything. Mommy and daddy – Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Dean Morgan – just fell out of love and live in separate houses. Now little Emily (Natasha Calis), who once harbored hope that her parents would reconcile, is crawling around on the kitchen floor, exhaling computer-generated moths, and making nasty faces.
Oh my God, evil. What’s with you? Ever since “The Exorcist,” it’s been the same song-and-crab-dance: Demons don’t kill, divorce does. The only twist on this old-fashioned focus-on-the-family nonsense – the only non-bodily twist (is possession the best chiropractor, or what?) – is that the demon is Jewish. Yes, at a yard sale Emily has her father buy her a big wood box engraved in Hebrew. The box moans and whispers and kicks up the sorts of winds that can whip schoolteachers and old ladies around a room. Its resident is a wayward spirit called a dybbuk, and this particular dybbuk wants the body of an innocent kid. Obviously, there’s a panicked drive to Bensonhurst in the hope of finding the one Hassid willing to violate Shabbat, drive upstate, and perform a kosher exorcism. (It’s the rapper Matisyahu!)
“The Possession” is morally lazy. Juliet Snowden and Stiles White are the credited screenwriters, and there had to be a more subtle way to drive home the divorce-is-bad message than having Sedgwick say to Morgan, “You destroyed this family, but I won’t let you hurt the children!” But this is the sort of movie that needs a line like that to enhance the healing and remorse. A relationship that died of natural causes will live again courtesy of supernatural ones. Some people are touched by Roma Downey and Della Reese. Others? They’re touched by dybbuks.
Anyway, Morgan’s haggard manliness is a selling point. He’s what Javier Bardem would look like if Bardem worked at a shipping-town dive bar. And Calis is a hoot. Yes, the two actors share an extended, regrettable double-entendre about the box that’s sure to be mocked in “Scary Movie 46,” but this girl gives evil her all. Her eyes roll more than mine did. When her face said “Jump,” I asked, “How high?”
On one hand, “The Possession” is just more demonic-possession junk. On the other, there’s some filmmaking in it. The director is Ole Bornedal, a Dane, with a good eye and nice way with framing, be it in a long shot or a close-up. For at least half the movie, there’s rhythm. A creepy scene abruptly cuts to black; we hear the bang of a low piano note and see an aerial shot of a neighborhood.
It’s not Hitchcock or Polanski. It’s not even William “The Exorcist” Friedkin. But when a director bothers to string together shots that last longer than seven or eight seconds, when you feel him trying to create atmosphere and suspense within the camera frame (as opposed to piling on lots of noise and editing), when you can sense him enjoying how stupid his movie is, you’re thankful. His joy is yours, even though most of the scares take a detour into comedy. The audience has seen it all before, and we’re OK to laugh. Horror repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.