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The Law & order franchise is known for rooting through headlines to find fuel for its upcoming episodes. We've seen high profile cases from Mel Gibson's drunk driving incident/anti-Semitic rant to Gov. Eliot Spitzer's sex scandal take form in Dick Wolf's gritty little world. But the NBC mainstay seems to be getting a little ambitious in its old age. Maybe the recent years have provided too many public controversies for law & Order to cover one by one, or maybe Det. John Munch has stepped behind the scenes as showrunner, instituting creative progress with some of his famed conspiracy theories inspiring the choices. But whatever the reason, SVU is doubling up on crimes for a forthcoming episode: EW reports that Season 15, which premieres in September, will feature a single episode that combines Paula Deen's highly publicized scandal with the events surrounding Trayvon Martin's killing. Something tells us this one was a late night in the writers room.
law & order: sVU executive producer Warren Leight explains the conflation of the controversial topics: "[Jeffrey] Tambor is a defense attorney representing a very high-profile celebrity woman chef [played by Cybill Shepherd] who thought she was being pursued by a rapist and turned around it was a teenager. And she shot him ... There's a lot of stop and frisk elements to that as well." So, add that into the mix.
Perhaps it is by necessity that Law & Order is weaving together the cases of Deen and Martin. Although Deen's story might have chucked in the celebrity chef's previous allegations of sexual harrasshment, SVU might have had to forgo inclusion of the Trayvon Martin for lack of any sexual component to the young man's story. Still, you have to wonder why, exactly, producers didn't opt to fictionalize elements about each case independently, rather than gluing them together via a fabricated plot device. And then you have to wonder if they'll continue on this path.
After all, we've got plenty of controversies to draw on from the past year. Could Anthony Wiener send a picture of his junk to Amanda Bynes, prompting her to throw a bong out of her high rise apartment window? Could we find Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning on trial for trading classified information with Edward Snowden, who leaves the Moscow Airport in protest of Russia's persecution of homosexuals and hides out in a rehab facility with Lindsay Lohan? What about Robin Thicke — that video must count as at least a misdemeanor, right? Where does he fit into all of this?!
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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.