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Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick star in this supernatural horror film produced by Sam Raimi. Shortly after the divorce of her parents (Morgan and Sedgwick), teenager Em (Natasha Calis) buys an elaborately carved antique box at a yard sale. As her behaviour grows increasingly bizarre in the weeks that follow, her father is forced to seek out the help of his ex-wife in a desperate attempt to end the curse that appears to be consuming the body and soul of their daughter.
For more about The Possession and the The Possession Blu-ray release, see the The Possession Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on January 7, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.0 out of 5.
Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Natasha Calis, Madison Davenport, Grant Show, Quinn Lord
Director: Ole Bornedal
» See full cast & crew
The Possession Blu-ray Review
What possessed them to make this?
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, January 7, 2013
It's finally happened: my extremely rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew has paid off. Instead of struggling to haltingly follow along in the chanted liturgy on High Holy Days, or stumbling through various Biblical passages to see what they really are talking about, I am able to offer translations of the menu options on The Possession, which some extremely clever disc author has offered in Hebrew until you select each individual entry, at which point they magically transform into English (see the last screenshot accompanying this review). Well, okay, confession time: I can transliterate the Hebrew, but my wife, who had a much more thorough education in Hebrew than I ever did, had to provide the actual translations. But here's the salient point about all of this: I was the child of a so-called "mixed marriage", and wasn't raised Jewish, with only the slightest inkling of my Jewish heritage until I spent time with my Jewish relatives in New York City when I was a teen. That experience really fostered an extreme interest in that side of my genetic history, but without "formal" education really available to me, or frankly the desire to attend regular services, I turned instead to folklore and some of the really interesting mystical writings that populate Jewish tradition to further my own self-directed education. Since I was also a budding musician, one of the first folktales that caught my eye was one that none other than Leonard Bernstein adapted into a ballet in the mid- seventies, choreographed by his longtime collaborator Jerome Robbins. The ballet was based on a 1914 play in Yiddish appropriately called The Dybbuk by a playwright who became known as S. Ansky (the "S" stands for the somewhat unwieldy Shloyme-Zanvl). Dybbuks are malevolent spirits which possess people and they have long been a part of Jewish "ghost stories" and are at least somewhat related to very famous myths like that of the succubus Lilith.
But back to the Hebrew on the disc menu: while whoever included Hebrew in the main menu options may have been clever, they weren't quite clever enough. While the Hebrew here is more or less straightforward translations of the English words like "Play Movie" and the like, there are some issues, shall we say. As many of you who don't even have a smattering of knowledge about any Semitic languages will probably know, Hebrew is written and read right to left (as opposed to our language's left to right procedure), but whoever translated the menu choices into English kept the Hebrew in an incorrect (and actually kind of laughable) left to right formulation. My wife and I first became aware of this because Hebrew has several letters which take different forms when they become the final letter of any given word. Those final forms should obviously be found on the left of their attendant Hebrew word, since the left side is the end of the word. On the menu options we were initially confused as to why these "finals", as they're called, were on the right side of the words, which really should be the beginning. So not to pun horribly given the kind of Satanic element of The Possession, but as they say the devil's in the details. Or, perhaps, maybe the devil made the disc author do it. Either way it's a fitting metaphor for how wrong headed this often silly film is.
Movies featuring the important sounding imprimatur "Based on a True Story" or the like would seem to have a higher threshold to meet in terms of their storytelling, but the fact is, these films are often as fictional as any offering made up from scratch. Actually not all that long after I first became enamored of Bernstein's version of The Dybbuk, in fact, I went to the Jessica Lange film Frances, ostensibly about long ago actress Frances Farmer, and, like The Possession, containing the "Based on a true story" statement. Frances viscerally affected me, to the point where my first real impact in film scholarship circles was my decades long quest to sort out fact from fiction, not just in terms of the film but its source elements (you can read a summary of my research here—not a quick read, but if I do say so myself, one that's quite indicative of the unbelievable lengths people will go to to "fictionalize" the truth). Ever since Frances, I've had a decidedly less naïve response to seeing things like "Based on a true story", but The Possession is so far fetched and outlandish that probably some will not even be tempted to slightly believe that it is based on anything other than the fanciful imagination of a screenwriter (or in this instance, a pair of screenwriters).
I frankly don't know what's funnier, the fact that this film was based on a story about an eBay auction for a haunted wine case (AKA the infamous "dibbuk box", to follow the film's spelling), or the fact that someone auctioned this item on eBay. Considering the regularly hyperbolic tripe that populates any given eBay auction (my personal favorite: Rare!! The Sound of Music Soundtrack LP!!), it's hard to even imagine what the auction stated. Something like "ugly old mahogany wine storage unit that comes haunted with its own malevolent spirit"? But that's the general set up of The Possession. Oh, yes, lest I forget, we have actual human interest in the film, supposedly generated by a recently divorced couple played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick (evidently trying to recoup some of her money that Bernie Madoff made off with), as well as their two emotionally roiled daughters who are not responding well to Mommy and Daddy splitting up. When Dad stops at a yard sale and younger daughter Em (Natasha Calis) falls in love with an ornate carved wooden box we've already seen not "behaving" normally in the film's opening sequence, we know we're in for trouble with a capital T.
What ensues is a perfectly rote example of exactly what you'd expect about any film that follows in the formidable wake of The Exorcist (and whose director makes no bones about having been deeply influenced by the Friedkin film). A sweet little suburban girl gets taken over by demonic spirits and begins doing really weird stuff. That's it. Mom and Dad forget they're divorced and attempt to figure out what's going on, at least until Mom thinks Dad is abusing little Em, but you just know in your heart of hearts that after a few long, doleful looks, she'll forgive him and come to her senses.
What potentially sets The Possession apart, but which actually is fodder for some rather arch and unexpected humor, is its Jewish setting. If The Exorcist tried to frame everything within the arcane liturgy of the Catholic Church, The Possession tries to do the same thing, rather ineptly it must be stated, with Orthodox Judaism (I'm assuming the Jews on display here are Lubavitchers, but of course the film never really makes anything very clear). Anyone who has ever attended a Lubavitcher service will probably break out laughing at the depiction of a "minyan" gasping in unison when the box is mentioned and (even worse, heaven forfend) they find out it's been opened! It's just patently ridiculous, an insult to both folklore and religion in one fell swoop.
That said, director Ole Bornedal has a fine, if too precious, visual sense. Bornedal repeatedly uses an aerial establishing device which he freely admits in his commentary is supposed to give the viewer the idea that "someone—or something—is watching us", and while that's kind of silly, there are some genuine scares scattered throughout the film, usually dependent on good old devices like jump cuts or tracking shots where something suddenly juts out from the side of the frame unexpectedly. But like the Hebrew on the disc's menu, too much of this film is, to coin a phrase, Bass-ackwards.
The Possession Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Possession is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.41:1. This is an intentionally desaturated looking film for the bulk of its running time, with an emphasis on Vancouver, B.C.'s brooding gray skies and kind of monochromatic mien. Therefore, very little really pops in terms of color or palette throughout the film. That said, the image here is very crisp and well defined, unless it's specifically designed not to be, as in a climactic scene in a red hued morgue. Close-ups reveal abundant fine detail and there are no real stability issues to report. Shadow detail remains fairly strong even in the many dimly lit interior scenes.
The Possession Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Possession features a reasonably aggressive lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that relies on just about every sonic cliché you've come to expect from a film like this. Some of these undeniably provoke a startle effect (there's one at the beginning of the film, when the elderly owner of the "dibbuk box" approaches it, and an even bigger one in a horrifying scene at the film's end that I won't spoil here). Surround activity actually tends to be more effective in some of the relatively more quiet scenes, like when Dad and the girls return to their home to discover what looks like an intruder has been in the house (it's left unclear whether or not it's a raccoon or the nefarious "dibbuk"). Director Ole Bornedal evidently fell in love with the music of Estonian composer Arvo Part and had the film's composer Anton Sanko ape some of Part's compositions, so there are some moody piano cues that sound great.
The Possession Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Possession Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Possession is like a paint by numbers possession film, about as generic as its own title. Even its most ostensibly innovative element, its tie to Judaism, is just wasted in some laughable sequences that made me wonder when the congregation was going to break into a rousing rendition of "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof (come to think of it, "The Dybbuk" scans the same as "Tradition", someone ought to write a parody lyric). There are a few genuine scares scattered throughout this film, but not enough to overcome its formulaic and cliché ridden ambience.
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