Moody and a little slow, with muted colors and a half-empty, alien-feeling suburban setting, Danish director Ole Bornedal’s “The Possession” is a nifty end-of-summer gift for horror buffs. (Understandably, the promotional campaign for this movie has emphasized producer Sam Raimi, but he didn’t write it or direct it, and it never feels much like his work.) This is a lugubrious, lovingly crafted B movie, with more than a little 1970s flavor but no arch postmodern attitude. Is it great cinema, or even a picture you’ll remember clearly this time next year? Maybe not, but “The Possession” is beautifully photographed and well cast, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick as a depressed, divorced couple whose younger daughter meets a most unwelcome new friend. Furthermore, it delivers its shocks masterfully and without overkill, and offers a new twist on the familiar exorcism formula.
I’m not going to claim that there’s never been a Jewish-themed demonic-possession movie before, since that’s probably not true — every arcane corner of human religious and spiritual belief has been plumbed by horror screenwriters at some point. (In fact, I dimly recollect a Judeo-centric parody of “The Exorcist,” released on LP, that my big brother owned. Anyone?) Here, writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White take the genuine concept of the “Dybbuk box,” demonic containers made of ornamented wood sometimes found in the 18th- and 19th-century shtetls of Eastern Europe, and run with it. More interesting still is Bornedal’s portrayal of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, where Morgan’s stricken dad finally finds a rabbi’s renegade son – played by Matisyahu, the ex-Hasid alt-rock artist – to help cast out the evil one.
By the time Em (Natasha Calis), a girl of 9 or 10, picks out the odd-looking box at a suburban garage sale, we already know it’s extremely bad news, thanks to an actual 1970s prologue sequence. We also know that Em and her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) are suffering through their parents’ dreary divorce, which has exiled Clyde (Morgan), their shaggy basketball-coach dad, to a brand-new house in a distant outer suburb and led their thin-lipped mother, Stephanie (Sedgwick), to shack up with an irritatingly cheerful orthodontist (Grant Show). I have the feeling that I’ve seen the orthodontist-as-inadequate-stepfather gag played out before, in other divorce movies, but it still works. I apologize in advance to all those who practice this noble and helpful profession, but doesn’t the very idea – “Mom’s dating a guy who puts braces on kids’ teeth!” – conjure up your inner sixth-grader? (Wait till you see what the imprisoned Dybbuk has in store for him!)