There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.
Meet the Dibbuk box. It's not your typical box. For one thing, it's not really a box. It's more of a wine cabinet. Also, it's haunted by a demon called a dibbuk, which, according to Jewish folklore, is a malevolent spirit of a dead soul that possesses multiple bodies to achieve oft-malicious goals. So, again, it's not really a box.
It's also a movie star, featured at the center of the upcoming horror film The Possession, which hits theaters on August 31. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick play the parents of a little girl who falls victim to the spirit after picking up the "box" at the world's worst yard sale. Now, possessed little girls are one thing — we've seen them everywhere from The Exorcist to Little Miss Sunshine — but the nifty (or perhaps terrifying) thing about The Possession is that this little Dibbuk box is actually accompanied by a horrifying story of ambiguous truth.
As does every object-related tale of terror, the story begins on eBay. In the not-too-distant past, a furniture store owner put a small wooden cabinet up for auction.
According to the box's website, the auction listing included the story of how the seller, Kevin Mannis, obtained the dibbuk box. Mannis purchased the box in September 2001 in a Portland estate sale of a Polish Holocaust survivor, who immigrated to America by way of Spain (where she picked up the box). At the estate sale, the woman's granddaughter, upon noticing that Mannis had picked up the so-called "dibbuk box," explained how her grandmother insisted that the box never be opened.
Mannis brought the cabinet back to his small furniture store, where he stowed it in the basement and left, leaving a young sales clerk in charge. About a half hour later, the saleswoman called: She was absolutely hysterical and screaming that someone was in my workshop breaking glass and swearing. Furthermore, the intruder had locked the iron security gates and the emergency exit and she couldn't get out. As I told her to call the police, my cell phone battery went dead. I hit speeds of 100 mph getting back to the shop. When I arrived, I found the gates locked. I went inside and found my employee on the floor in a corner of my office sobbing hysterically. I ran to the basement and went downstairs. At the bottom of the stairs, I was hit by an overpowering unmistakable odor of cat urine (there had never been any animals kept or found in my shop). The lights didn't work. As I investigated, I found that the reason the lights didn't work also explained the sounds of glass breaking. All of the light bulbs in the basement were broken. All nine incandescent bulbs had been broken in their sockets, and 10 four-foot fluorescent tubes were lying shattered on the floor. I did not find an intruder, however. I should also add that there was only one entrance to the basement. It would have been impossible for anyone to leave without meeting me head-on. I went back up to speak with my salesperson, but she had left.
She never returned to work (after having been with me for two years). She refuses to discuss the incident to this day. I never thought of relating the events of that day to anything having to do with the cabinet.
Not thinking about the box, Mannis decided to give the cabinet to his mother for her birthday:
On October 31, 2001, my mother came to my shop. We were going to have lunch together, but before we were going to leave, I gave her the wine cabinet. She seemed to like it. While she examined it, I went to make a phone call. I hadn't been out of sight more than 5 minutes when one of my employees came running into my office saying that something was wrong with my mom. When I went back to see what the matter was, I found my mom sitting in a chair beside the cabinet. Her face had no expression, but tears were streaming down her cheeks. No matter how I tried to get her to respond, she would not. She could not. It turns out that my mother had suffered a stroke.
Later, Mannis gave the box to his sister, brother and girlfriend, all three of whom returned it to him. He sold it to an older couple, who gave it back days later. Reluctantly, he took the box home, only to realize that he began having a recurring nightmare involving "the most gruesome, demonic-looking Hag that I have ever seen." A month later, Mannis' sister and brother came over and described their same dream, down to every detail. Suddenly, they all realized the shared link: the box.
Since deciding that the blame was on the box, Mannis claimed to see "shadow things" at random; smoke alarms going off with no fire; burnt out lightbulbs; his hair falling out; the stench of cat urine lurking in the air. It led to him listing the box on eBay, where it was purchased by bidder "agetron," who then sold it again. The box shifted ownership through a number of other transactions before it eventually reached Iosif Nietzke, a college student from Minnesota… who also put it back up for auction.
An L.A. Times article describes the lot: "Inside were two locks of hair, one granite slab, one dried rosebud, one goblet, two wheat pennies, one candlestick and, allegedly, one "dibbuk," a kind of spirit with origins in Yiddish folklore. According to the report, Nietzke's listing described the antique as a "'haunted Jewish wine cabinet box' that had plagued several owners with rotten luck and a spate of bizarre paranormal stunts."
The cabinet then went to a museum curator named Jason Haxton, who went on to write a book chronicling his experience with the box and develop the cabinet's "official" website. In 2004, Haxton was approached by a lawyer representing horror movie legend Sam Raimi, who wanted to produce a film version about the dibbuk box. Haxton, who is still the box's current owner, allegedly offered to give the box to Raimi and his team, but they turned him down. "They were too afraid of having the actual box," Haxton told a reporter in August. "Nobody wanted to house it."
Stan Wertlieb, one of the film's producers, corroborated the claim: "At our first Dibbuk Box production meeting, Sam Raimi said it would be best to have the actual box in our possession while we worked on the movie. The question was raised about who would be the caretaker for the box while it was here. In a room of ten, nobody would volunteer, each using a different excuse to avoid exposure to the box's curse." Ole Bornedal, the director of The Possession, told Entertainment Weekly: "Some really weird things happened. I've never stood underneath a neon light before that wasn't lit, that all of a sudden exploded. The worst thing was, five days after we wrapped the movie, all the props burned. This storage house in Vancouver burned down to the ground, and the fire department does not know the cause."Truth? Fiction? Either way, the nature of the twisted tale is utterly fascinating, whether or not you believe that dibbuks go bump in the night.The Possession opens in theaters on August 31.
Follow Marc on Twitter @MarcSnetiker
[Photo Credit: Lionsgate]
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