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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
A total knockout as a piece of well-made B-movie grit Fighting focuses on two men living on separate edges of society who come together to make a killing in the forbidden world of bare-knuckle fighting. When con man Harvey Boarden spots raw street-fighting talent in the form of small-town dude Shawn MacArthur the two team up by entering Shawn in the potentially lucrative underground circuit a place where rich men bet on young brawlers who battle like pit bulls unleashed. With success comes complications however and Shawn ends up fighting not only for money but his whole future — which suddenly is very much at stake.
WHO’S IN IT?
Rising young heartthrob Channing Tatum’s (Step Up) raw star power blasts through the screen as Shawn a role that thankfully calls for more complexity than just acting with his fists. Opposite Oscar-nominated actor Terrence Howard’s (Hustle & Flow) Harvey he steps up his game and the two play off each other with ease searching for ways to lift what is basically an action vehicle into something more emotionally involving and Rocky-esque. Certainly the highlights are still the intense and brutal fight sequences but because Tatum invests more than just one note into his portrayal of a guy trying to work his way up from the streets into a better life we are behind him all the way. In a case of a Zulay playing another Zulay Zulay Henao is sweet and appealing as a girl Shawn starts dating between bouts while Brian White is menacing and slippery as Evan Hailey a key rival and protégé of Shawn’s own estranged father. Also of note is Altagracia Guzman who has a couple of very funny scenes as Zulay’s disapproving grandmother.
The heart-stopping realism of the bare-knuckle fighting is refreshingly free of cinematic trickery and CGI assistance. It’s raw and packs real punch particularly during a sequence in which Shawn faces a formidable martial arts opponent but also in the climactic bout with Hailey. And fortunately there are some nice twists along the way that keep this flick from drifting into complete predictability. Director Dito Montiel who previously made the Sundance award-winner A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (also with Tatum) knows the New York street scene well.
Although richly entertaining the film could have benefitted from a deeper look into this forbidden world of underground human fighting which hasn’t been explored much on-screen beyond the very unique take of David Fincher’s acerbic Fight Club.
Aside from the powerful fisticuffs on constant display it has to be Shawn’s first encounter with Zulay’s grandmother when he arrives unannounced for dinner. It’s priceless stuff serving to humanize him and ramp his score way up on the likeability meter.
Give credit to the filmmakers for the simplicity of the name. Fighting tells you everything you need to know.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Multiplex. Like any boxing match it’s more fun to watch with a crowd.