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.
'Save' Tops Holiday Box Office
"Save the Last Dance" kicked off in first place to a record-setting $28 million for the four-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend.
Distribution executives had anticipated that Paramount's PG-13-rated teen appeal dance drama would end 20th Century Fox's three-week chart-topping reign with "Cast Away," but they were only thinking in terms of an opening of about $20 million. Instead, "Dance" came in swinging to the tune of an ESTIMATED $28.00 million at 2,230 theaters ($12,556 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, Paramount estimated "Dance" at $24.00 million.)
"Dance" had the highest per-theater average for any film playing at over 1,000 theaters last weekend.
"$20 million was kind of the benchmark (estimate going into the weekend)," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "I had it at $18-21 million. That's where I thought it would be. Normally, when you have a film that appeals to a teen audience like this, the Friday goes through the roof and it sort of flattens out on Saturday. We were actually up 21% Saturday. The Friday figure was $7.5 million and it went to $9.1 million Saturday.
"I think it's the biggest opening ever on Martin Luther King weekend. It's not the biggest gross. We actually had that in '98 with 'Titanic' with $36 million. The previous record (for an opening this weekend) was 'Varsity Blues' with $17.5 million (via Paramount in 1999). We looked back all the way to '93 (without finding anything bigger than 'Dance')."
Why did "Dance" work so well? "Obviously, I think the (marketing) campaign worked and delivered the young female (audience)," Lewellen replied. "But it also appealed to an older female audience. We had about 300 sneaks last weekend and the exit polls were extraordinary -- like 95% were excellent or good (the Top Two Boxes). It just hits the nerve and appeals to a very broad audience."
Directed by Thomas Carter, "Dance" stars Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas.
Driven by "Dance," the holiday weekend went into the record books as Hollywood's biggest Martin Luther King weekend ever. That's what insiders were predicting last week, pointing out that the previous three-day weekend had seen very strong ticket sales by key films (those grossing $500,000 or more) of about $116 million.
Although distributors were thinking the holiday weekend would do about $150 million in key film ticket sales, business proved to be much stronger than expected. Based on Sunday morning studio estimates, the overall marketplace expanded to nearly $168 million.
The previous King weekend record was set Jan. 16-19, 1998, when key films grossed $128.68 million for four days. Paramount's "Titanic" led the pack that weekend with $36.0 million.
This weekend's arrival of "Dance" cast a shadow over Fox's PG-13-rated drama "Cast Away," which slid one slot to second place in its fourth week. Nonetheless, "Cast" held better than expected, grossing an ESTIMATED $20.21 million (-15%) at 3,048 theaters (+100 theaters; $6,630 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, Fox estimated "Cast" at $17.15 million.) Its cume is approximately $168.2 million, heading for $200 million-plus.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, "Cast Away" stars Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt.
USA Films' R-rated Oscar contender drama "Traffic" held on to third place in its third week with a solid ESTIMATED $13.07 million (-22%) at 1,527 theaters (+17 theaters; $8,559 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, USA estimated "Traffic" at $11.17 million.) Its cume is approximately $35.1 million.
"It looks like it has the least amount of drop (for three days) of all the other films out there, which is a really good indication of its holding power," USA Films distribution president Jack Foley said Sunday morning, "particularly in light of the fact that it's a very special film insofar as its subject matter is concerned. This isn't broad-based entertainment. It's issue oriented.
"In that respect, America seems to be embracing the film very well because our numbers, particularly in the major markets in the country, are very strong. The drop in major markets in the high-end zones are modest. They're like one and two percent and some of them are even up over last weekend. Mainstream markets like Cincinnati and Kansas City are holding their own, too. Their drops are a little bit more than what's reflected by the four days. They're going to be (down in) like the 30%s. With that type of drop, it shows that Middle America is embracing the film as much as the high-end, more urban and urbane markets are. Those markets -- New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago -- they're through the roof!"
With five nominations, including best picture and director, "Traffic" is a major contender for Golden Globes. What effect would a strong showing in the Globes have? "The Globes are indicative of how the winds are blowing for the Academy," Foley replied. "It may even sort out some of this stuff with what (film) Steven Soderbergh is ultimately going to be recognized for -- whether it's 'Erin Brockovich' or 'Traffic' or both. I think Benicio (Del Toro) is really going to have an indication given to him if he does well in the Golden Globes for the Academy."
Asked about further expansion plans, Foley said, "That's going to come at Academy nomination time where the values are the greatest. If the film secures significant nominations then, above and beyond just best director, then the film obviously takes on a hell of a lot more value out there and we have every intention of responding in kind to that opportunity. It's not only just the significant noms, it's the number of noms. This picture's going to be up for a number of nominations, so we could kick the number up to 500 or 1,000 more runs."
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, "Traffic" stars Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Paramount's PG-13-rated romantic comedy "What Women Want" from Icon Productions dropped two pegs to fourth place in its fifth week with a still-attractive ESTIMATED $12.00 million (-27%) at 3,092 theaters (+40 theaters; $3,881 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, Paramount estimated "Women" at $10.50 million.) Its cume is approximately $153.9 million.
Directed by Nancy Meyers, "Women" stars Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt.
Columbia Pictures' went wide with its PG-13-rated drama "Finding Forrester" in its fourth week, tying for fourth place with a solid ESTIMATED $12.00 million at 2,002 theaters (+1,802 theaters; $5,994 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, Columbia estimated "Forrester" at $10.00 million.) Its cume is approximately $21.4 million.
"We had an A-plus CinemaScore," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "We've continued to get fantastic exit polls. This is a movie that audiences love. The 200 runs we started out with held firm during their run, and we would expect really strong holdover on this very good opening, as well.
"We think we're in for a nice long run. Finally, the volume of product lets up going forward. So we think we'll more than hold our own in the market."
Looking at the expansion of the overall holiday weekend marketplace, Blake observed, "Unbelievable! I didn't think December could be as huge as it turned out to be. I didn't think November could be as huge as it turned out to be. And here we go again -- so it's terrific!"
Directed by Gus Van Sant, "Forrester" stars Sean Connery.
New Line Cinema's wide opening of its PG-13-rated drama "Thirteen Days" was sixth with an encouraging ESTIMATED $11.70 million at 2,029 theaters (+2,028 theaters; $5,766 per t eater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, New Line estimated "Days" at $10.23 million.) Its cume is approximately $12.3 million.
"We're extremely happy," New Line distribution president David Tuckerman said Sunday morning. "We knew it was going to be a crowded marketplace with a lot of pictures in our demos. And not only a lot of pictures, but a lot of good pictures -- I mean 'Forrester's' a good picture, 'Traffic's' a good picture, 'Crouching Tiger's' a good picture. These are good movies. I'm a big believer that movies beget themselves no matter what the demographic is. So if this weekend you see a good movie, next weekend the first thing you think about doing is going to see another movie. Whether you're 50 years old or 20 years old, it's the same deal. We really think we're going to be in the marketplace for a long time. It's a high quality film and plays great."
Directed by Roger Donaldson, "Thirteen Days" stars Kevin Costner.
Buena Vista/Touchstone's PG-13-rated action comedy "Double Take" opened in seventh place to a better-than-anticipated ESTIMATED $11.50 million at 1,631 theaters ($7,057 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, BV estimated "Take" at $10.00 million.)
Directed by George Gallo, "Double Take" stars Eddie Griffin and Orlando Jones.
Warner Bros. and Castle Rock Entertainment's PG-13-rated comedy "Miss Congeniality," which was fourth last week, tied for seventh place in its fourth week with a still-winning ESTIMATED $11.50 million (-17%) at 2,668 theaters ($4,310 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, Warners estimated "Miss" at $9.36 million.) Its cume is approximately $80.6 million.
Directed by Donald Petrie, "Congeniality" stars Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt and Candice Bergen.
Sony Pictures Classics took ninth place with the expansion of its critically-acclaimed PG-13-rated action adventure "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The Mandarin Chinese language Oscar contender from director Ang Lee continued to enjoy killer ticket sales with an ESTIMATED $8.92 million at 700 theaters (+528 theaters; $12,735 per theater). Its cume is approximately $28.9 million.
Directed by Ang Lee, "Dragon" stars Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Buena Vista/Disney's G-rated animated comedy "The Emperor's New Groove," down four pegs in its fifth week, with a less-lively ESTIMATED $7.50 million (-4%) at 2,237 theaters (-537 theaters; $3,353 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, BV estimated "Emperor" at $5.70 million.) Its cume is approximately $71.2 million.
Directed by Mark Dindal and produced by Randy Fullmer, it features the voices of David Spade, Eartha Kitt, John Goodman and Patrick Warburton.
OTHER OPENINGS This weekend also saw the arrival of MGM's PG-13-rated suspense thriller "AntiTrust," placing 12th with an uneventful ESTIMATED $6.30 million at 2,433 theaters ($2,589 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, MGM estimated "AntiTrust" at $5.20 million.)
Directed by Peter Howitt, "AntiTrust" stars Ryan Phillippe, Rachael Leigh Cook, Claire Forlani and Tim Robbins.
SNEAK PREVIEWS There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
EXPANSIONS On the expansion front, Buena Vista/Touchstone went wider with its PG-13-rated dark comedy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," placing 13th with a hopeful ESTIMATED $3.00 million at 431 theaters (+266 theaters; $6,961 per theater). (For the three-day period Friday through Sunday, BV estimated "Brother" at $2.60 million.) Its cume is approximately $7.3 million.
Directed by Joel Coen and written by Ethan and Joel Coen, it stars George Clooney and John Turturro.
Fine Line Features went wider with its R-rated comedy "State and Main," placing 18th with a quiet ESTIMATED $1.67 million at 460 theaters (+383 theaters; $3,625 per theater). Its cume is approximately $4.0 million.
Written and directed by David Mamet, its ensemble cast is headed by Alec Baldwin.
Fine Line also went wider with its R-rated drama "Before Night Falls," placing 30th with a calm ESTIMATED $0.16 million at 18 theaters (+10 theaters; $8,833 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.6 million.
Directed by Julian Schnabel, it stars Javier Bardem.
WEEKEND COMPARISONS Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the four-day period -- took in approximately $167.94 million, up about 37.69% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $121.97 million.
This weekend's key film gross cannot be compared to the previous weekend this year, a normal three-day period.
Last year, New Line's opening week of "Next Friday" was first with $16.92 million at 1,103 theaters ($15,338 per theater); and Sony's second week of "Stuart Little" was second with $12.52 million at 3,092 theaters ($4,048 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $29.4 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $48.2 million.