“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” gasps a horrified character in The Possession.
Clearly she can’t be referring to the film in which she appears. Lazily directed by veteran Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal – making his American studio debut like so many well-meaning European genre specialists before him – the film is basically a compendium of possessed-child clichés reaching back to The Exorcist.
In the sole inspired moment, Bornedal sees William Friedkin and raises him, topping the earlier film’s nightmarish medical examination sequence with a scene in which haunted cherub Emily (Natasha Calis) is subjected to an MRI scan; suffice it to say that what shows up on the glowing-green readout screen is beyond the realm of any biology textbook.
Elsewhere, The Possession scrapes the bottom of the demonic barrel, littering its soundtrack with cryptic whispers and throwing in some CGI pestilence to suggest a malign presence. As in The Exorcist, the culprit is a body-hopping demon, but the Catholic spook tactics have been replaced with Hebraic mysticism – in lieu of Pazuzu, we’re given a dybbuk, a creature of Jewish folklore last spotted in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man.
And, as in The Exorcist, it’s suggested that the bad spirit was invited into the characters’ lives by a weakened family unit: Emily’s parents Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) are in the midst of a nasty divorce, and her older sister, Hannah (Madison Davenport), is a moody, strident preteen, just for good measure.
Morgan, who looks like a stockier Robert Downey Jr., is forced to do most of the actorly heavy lifting here, looking shocked at regular intervals by his younger daughter’s transformation into a cackling, raw-meat-devouring little monster obsessed with the old wooden box she picked up at a yard sale (if the film has a moral, it seems to have something to do with avoiding bargain-hunting at all costs). Suffice it to say that the actor seems to be suffering at least as much as the character, whose job as a high-school basketball guru is the only interesting thing about him (a scene where Clyde instructs his charges to run drills with an invisible ball could be the beginning to a decent inspirational-coach flick).
Sedgwick has even less to do, saddled with a role that requires her to be as stubborn and clueless as possible until the sheer proliferation of weirdness convinces her that something worse than a feckless ex-husband is to blame for her kid’s malady.
On a technical level, The Possession is a mess: It has a nice overcast colour palette, but Bornedal’s disinterest in the story manifests in oddly timed blackouts and some truly half-hearted exposition in a dimly lit Brooklyn synagogue. (A filmmaker with a sense of humour could have knocked that one out of the park).
Whatever one thinks of the Paranormal Activity films, they prove that it’s possible to generate tension and the odd truly startling moment without resorting to gore or excessive special effects. By contrast, this thriller merely feels innocuous: Nothing to fear here.