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.
September 02, 2010 11:19am EST
When the animated opening credits of Warner Bros. Going the Distance begin a barrage of colorful images envelope the screen shaking and shifting to the sounds of contemporary pop-rock like a hipster-chick in a SoHo lounge. It sets the tone for a lighthearted but levelheaded romantic comedy that like the music is cool and crafty but not completely above the clichés of the tried-and-true genre.
Making her feature-film directorial debut Oscar-nominated documentarian Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes) set out to make a film that as she put it “would feel as real as possible” – a tough job when taking on a studio comedy. But with a relatable premise a punchy script and a cast that possesses a ton of personality she succeeds at delivering a surprisingly fresh film that chronicles the pros and cons of a long-distance relationship between Justin Long’s Garrett and Drew Barrymore’s Erin.
The first half hour is filled with the standard situational set-ups and character introductions that one expects from any film. We learn everything we need (and want) to know about Garrett and Erin: He’s a New York record label workhorse and she’s an aspiring journalist interning at a metropolitan newspaper. They frequent the same dive bar in downtown Manhattan and have a beer and barbeque-wings fueled fling which turns into a steady summer-long relationship. But all good things must come to an end and as September approaches she prepares to head back to Stanford for another semester much to their mutual dismay. However the feelings between them are sincere and they decide to give their spatially challenged relationship a shot.
Real-life couple Long and Barrymore have a few touching moments throughout the film mostly when the trials of their long-distance relationship take a toll but they are a bore in comparison to the supporting cast. Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day bring frat-house etiquette and bro-mantic charm to the movie as Garrett’s best friends Box and Dan. Together they are the living embodiment of testosterone and man-child — archetypes that have become all-too common in current rom-coms — but with legitimately funny performances they really pay off. Christina Applegate is good for a load of laughs as Erin’s older sister Corinne who is skeptical of Erin’s eagerness to engage in yet another risky romance; she steals the show with her unrelenting commentary.
Going the Distance doesn’t break new ground within the genre or redefine cinematic romance but it balances the sweet and sour moments of its story very well. Burstein minimizes the drama and keeps the comedy raw to maximize the entertainment value of the movie which should please all who purchase a ticket. Somehow the long distance dilemma hasn’t been tackled on film before and that makes the movie appear to be more original that it really is but in a year where so few romantic comedies have brought the goods (The Back-Up Plan Sex and the City 2) Going the Distance does just that.