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.
Say have you heard the one about the troubled family that forsakes the trials and tribulations of city life for a bucolic new life on a rustic farm out in the middle of nowhere? It’s never a good idea to move into a house when the previous residents of said farm vanished without a trace—and it’s still not a good idea here. Soon teenager Jess (Kristen Stewart) and her three-year-old brother begin seeing ominous apparitions invisible to everyone else. When those specters become violent Jess' sanity is questioned--a double jeopardy for the tormented teen. Stewart Jodie Foster’s endangered daughter in Panic Room is appropriately moody and plucky as the terrorized teen whom no one believes. Penelope Ann Miller and Dylan McDermott are both suitably dense as Mom and Dad with twins Evan and Theodore Turner suitably spooky as the wide-eyed baby brother who can see everything. X-Files regular William B. Davis sans cigarette drops in a couple of times as the local real-estate agent and a grizzled John Corbett plays a shotgun-toting farm hand who the family hires with surprisingly little hesitation. There’s only so much the actors can do with the material and they pretty much do it. Directors Danny and Oxide Pang veterans of such popular Asian scarefests as The Eye and Ab-normal Beauty know their way around a scare and The Messengers has some decent jolts along the way. Ultimately however the peskiest of all problems – the plot – tends to get in the way. As the story pieces fall into place the film itself tends to fall apart. In addition this is yet another horror film that has been given a box-office-friendlier PG-13 rating (in the February issue of Fangoria co-star Corbett makes his displeasure known about this issue). This is the Pang brothers’ first stateside project and despite their stylistic touches there’s an unmistakable sense of selling out.
Sometimes it sucks being Spider-Man. Two years of playing superhero has finally gotten to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) who finds himself in the middle of an identity crisis. Not only does he feel underappreciated as Spider-Man he's also broke flunking out of college and of course still can't get the girl. He wishes more and more he didn't have this "gift " so he can live a normal mild-mannered life and declare his love to Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). She wants to love him too if she could only get some kind of signal but Peter keeps pushing her away (for her own good of course) until she decides she has to move on with her life. Poor Peter. The reluctant hero is also on tenuous ground with his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) who is now working for his late father's company but whose growing vendetta against Spider-Man clouds their friendship. While Peter wavers on giving the whole superhero gig up for good across town there's a new even more powerful nemesis in the making. Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) a scientist working on a breakthrough fusion-energy invention for Harry's company has a freak accident (is there any other kind?) in his lab which leaves him with four deadly mechanical tentacles fused to his back--and his mind diabolically twisted. Suddenly the city is desperate for Spider-Man's help as the madman dubbed Doc Ock runs amok. For the love of god pull yourself together Peter accept your fate and put those Spidey powers to good use!
As if there are still any doubts Tobey Maguire's performance in Spider-Man 2 reaffirms the fact he fits the Peter Parker/Spider-Man persona perfectly. It's in his eyes his red-rimmed soulful eyes which show every sentiment. Maguire is not afraid to embrace Parker's sensitive albeit nerdy nature. Beneath the buffed out exterior and superhuman abilities he's still a lovable geek deep down (watch him trip over his feet when he walks down the street). As Mary Jane Dunst is thankfully no longer just the damsel in distress but also a thriving and successful actress who displays her own fair share of emotions over their unrequited love. Spider-Man is in essence a love story and these two talented actors continue to spark like the best of them (although rumor has it they can't stand each other in real life. Oh actors.) The intense Franco chews it up with gusto as the angst-ridden Harry. But what truly makes Spider-Man 2 rise above the original is the malevolent Doc Ock played with relish by the brilliant Molina (Frida). Far more menacing and formidable a villain than the Green Goblin (sorry Willem Dafoe) the multi-tentacled mad scientist just plain scares the bejeezus out of you. Yet he also elicits sympathy if you can believe it watching the relatively sane man buried deep within the madness struggle to break free. Heck just about everyone's conflicted in this flick.
It's no wonder Spider-Man 2 surpasses its predecessor. Thanks to comic-book guru Stan Lee who created something operatic in the Spider-Man story the film's heartfelt and inherent conflicts--tortured souls undying love vs. duty to fellow man villains with a conscience--just keeps getting more and more interesting. And luckily director Sam Raimi rarely strays from the main source. From the opening credits where scenes from the first film are shown through glorious artwork Raimi crafts the movie to combine the best in visuals with the compelling story fashioning a thrill ride with heart. One of the best examples is when Spider-Man uses all his strength to stop a speeding train and falls exhausted only to be caught by the people on the train and carefully placed on the ground. Exposed and vulnerable Spider-Man's faith is renewed when the folks around him tell him they'll keep his secret safe. Classic stuff. The only minor drawback is the time it takes for Peter to get over his identity crisis; the "will he won't he?" drags a bit. Maybe we just get a little anxious for Parker to realize people really do need Spider-Man and to finally go webbed head-to-mechanical tentacle with the nasty Doc Ock. It's what a must-see summer blockbuster is all about baby.