Monday, September 10, 2012

Thinking Inside the Box

Do you want to know the worst part about writing about movies as a vocation? It's finding something to say about mediocrities. Good movies and bad both provide an essential element to the writing process: passion. A mediocre movie? Man, what's the point, eh? This is the dilemma I'm having with The Possession (2012, directed by Ole Bornedal). It's not a bad movie, and you might think I'm grateful for that given how badly awry some legitimately awful horror movies can turn. It's professionally made and it's not egregiously stupid or morally obnoxious. It's not a standout, either.

The Possession follows amiable basketball coach, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who shares custody of his two daughters with his ex-wife, Stephanie. Their daughters are Em and Hannah. On one custody weekend, Clyde takes his daughters to a yard sale where the younger daughter stumbles across a strange box that has no obvious means of opening. The box is carved with words in Hebrew. Em becomes strangely attracted to the box, and once she manages to open it, strange things begin to happen and Em's personality begins to change. An amiable child, she becomes sullen and angry, violently so. Something inside the box has taken hold of her mind, and is driving a wedge between Clyde and his daughter. That something contrives to frame Clyde as an abuser, severing him and his suspicious mind. Clyde has been investigating the box, and a scholar of Jewish folklore tells him that it's a "dibbuk box", designed to trap a restless spirit or demon. The young Orthodox rabbi Clyde has consulted accompanies him to perform an exorcism before the dibbuk takes over Em for good.

The circumstances under which I viewed The Possession color my perceptions of it. I saw it on a stormy afternoon, having just beaten a hailstorm into the theater, just in time to see the trailers before the film. I was the only person in the auditorium. As Lionsgate's clockwork logo began to fill the screen, the whole theater went dark. The only light to be seen was the little guide lights on the aisles and the exit signs. The projection room was dark. After sitting for a little while waiting for the film to come back on, I started to get creeped out a little, and I wondered if there was a massive storm outside. There wasn't. The power was on in the theater. They were just having mechanical difficulties that they didn't even know about until I told them about it. So back into the theater, back into the darkness. They got the sound going first, and this focused my attention on how the movie's sound played in the absence of an image. Very well, as it so happens. The sound design and score for The Possession are wonderfully gloomy, appointed with sinister voices and low strains of violins. When the image itself came up, the movie turned out to have a similarly gloomy filmed-in-Vancouver overcast. There's something about that Canadian "look" to a horror movie that warms my black little heart.

The story itself is what you'd get if you crossed an Isaac Bashevis-Singer story with a Japanese horror movie. As in most J-horror movies, the ghost in this movie is tied to a specific object and there's a set-piece near the end when the thing crawls out of the box, Ring-style. There are also reruns of the disturbing presence of fingers in inappropriate places that seems derived from the Ju-On movies. The tropes of this movie are very familiar by now. The Judaica gives it an exotic texture, but I have some issues with that that I'll come to in due course.

Movies about demonic possession are probably my least favorite kind of horror movie, not just because there's not a lot of variability among them, but also because they tend to be the most reactionary type of horror movie. This is a type of horror movie that is more overly reliant on the primacy of religion as a guard against the forces of darkness. The idea of demonic possession is a pretty frightening big idea, but the notion that a specific religious sect has the key to defending against it strains at my credibility overly much. Worse, it has the unfortunate echo of real-life atrocities committed during exorcism ceremonies, including the deaths of the victims. More troubling in recent years is the emphasis on demons that attack Christian victims from other religions. The demon and its religious tradition act as an Other, come to dismantle the traditional Christian family. This film doubles down on this by having its family already broken--though amiably so--and being forcibly reconstituted by the needs of the plot and nevermind if it makes sense for the characters. This film tries--awkwardly--to defuse the "otherness" of its exorcist by having him appear to be fairly hip in spite of the Orthodox outfit and grooming he wears. It tries too hard, I think.

The Possession is fairly indifferent toward its characters to the point that it doesn't provide them with last names. Stephanie is a stock ex-wife, her new boyfriend--soon removed by the depredations of the dibbuk--is a nebbishy dentist, Hannah is the typical "difficult" teen. Clyde gets the most of the attention and the wounds done to him strike me as having a subtle white middle class male persecution complex about them. He's a good father, how dare his wife take his kids away when his daughter shows up with bruises? Can't you see that it's the demon? Imagine, if you will, how this might play in the family courts in your own jurisdiction.

Still, this is all built into the premise (as is it's "based on a true story" pedigree--de rigeur for exorcism movies, it seems) and it's a fault of the screenplay that it doesn't transcend these limitations. Director Ole Bornedal, for his part, does what he's asked and delivers his scenes and set-pieces with something approaching conviction. Bornedal is an old hand at horror moviemaking. He knows how to hit the notes, but this isn't an auteur's movie and he certainly doesn't impose himself on the film. The result is slick, anonymous, mercenary.

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