Friday, August 31, 2012

Irregular Exorcise: THE POSSESSION

What’s stuck in the public imagination from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, still one of the great horror films, is all the paranormal effects work: the spinning head, the growling voice, the twisted limbs, the levitating bedroom furniture. So it’s no surprise really that a great many exorcist movies that have followed in the decades since have focused on delivering a clattering cacophony of horror at the expense of the whole experience, even though that's not exactly entirely what made that film so effective. Director Ole Bornedal’s creepy possessed-little-girl movie aptly named The Possession has a screenplay from Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (they of Knowing) that has learned all the right lessons from The Exorcist by placing its emphasis on the all-too-human characters who are just living a normal life before strange events start to work their way into the fabric of everyday life.

At the film’s start we meet an ordinary family. The father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a college basketball coach, arrives to pick up his two daughters for his night with them. The older daughter (Madison Davenport) is a drama queen in her early teens. The younger daughter (Natasha Calis) is an energetic vegetarian animal-lover. He and their mother (Kyra Sedgwick) have been divorced three months now and he’s finally moving into a new house. This has understandably put some strain into these young girls’ lives. Their mother has been dating a dentist. Their father is fielding calls from an out-of-state university that wants to encourage him to coach a bigger team at a more prestigious school. Times are tough, but life moves on. These characters are convincingly drawn and well acted, parents and kids alike. If it weren’t destined to become a horror film, this could easily have become a nice, tender little family drama.

But horror it is. The younger daughter picks up a strange wooden box at a yard sale and convinces her father to let her buy it. Now, this box has been seen in the opening scene causing a frail old woman’s violently implausible collapse that saw her flung across the room, so we know nothing good will come of this. Sure enough, the daughter starts misbehaving. First, she’s merely mumbling to herself, but as time goes on, she starts to cultivate a cold, hollow stare and an eerily slippery memory. At the breakfast table one day she stabs at her father with a fork. Later, she’ll be found sitting on her bed, cradling the box, covered in moths. In both cases, she claims to have no memory of the incident. Young Calis gives one of those perfectly creepy child performances that the horror genre provides from time to time, able to shift effortlessly from scary monster to adorable little girl in the span of half a second.

As the creepiness escalates in standard horror movie ways – mysterious movements, dark shapes, flickering lights, and some skin-crawling body horror effects – the divorced parents are pushed further apart. The mother doesn’t want to believe that her sweet little girl is being taken over by some force emanating from the box, even if that’s not exactly what anyone is articulating. The father, on the other hand, takes this box to local experts who inform him about the folklore surrounding the box. Don’t open it, he’s told. It’s too late for that. Again, creepy stuff, but what makes this all work so well is the focus on character. If it were forced to rely simply on the well-crafted spookiness, the movie would fall a little flat. The complications and shading that come from good actors giving good performances help make the film far more frightening than it otherwise would be.

In a way, it’s a film about the anxieties of parenthood. Morgan’s character seems like a good dad, funny, patient, and tough when he needs to be. The fear that The Possession taps into is that of psychic-spiritual damage to a child, not through any wrongdoing on the part of the parents, but from forces beyond parental control. This young girl is just south of adolescence, on the cusp of uncontrollable changes. During this time her parents won’t always be able to figure out what’s wrong with her, what influences she’s exposed herself to. That’s natural, but the paranormal circumstances reveal this anxiety prematurely to both the adults and the child herself. Look at the scene where the little girl looks in the mirror and sees something in the back of her throat, a great horror jolt and a key piece of thematic detail. That’s what’s scary here beyond the impressive effects and creepy atmospherics that increasingly take over the film until it concludes in a standard, but nonetheless effective, sequence that finds a likable Hasidic rabbi (one played by the musician Matisyahu, no less) performing an impromptu ceremony in a last-ditch effort to set things right. The box closes the girl off, drives her parents away, and takes control of her. Her family is helpless, confused, frightened and because the movie has taken its time to create characters worth caring about, it’s all the scarier. 

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