The dybbuk made her do it

‘The Possession’ turns out not to be about a dybbuk so much as a standard movie devil that has gone to ulpan.

Dybbuk (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Possession
Directed by Ole Bornedal
Written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White
With Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Natasha Calis
Hebrew title: Ha’dybbuk
Running time: 92 minutes
In English, with Hebrew titles
There’s nothing diabolical about the formula horror film The Possession. It’s notable only for the fact that the demon that possesses a lovely little girl is identified as a dybbuk (the Hebrew title of the film is Ha’dybbuk) that must be exorcised by a Jewish holy man, played by – who else – Hassidic pop/reggae star Matisyahu. But The Possession turns out not to be about a dybbuk so much as a standard movie devil that has gone to ulpan.
Matisyahu, who turns out to have a nice, low-key screen presence, doesn’t show up until far too late in the movie. The first two-thirds of the film are an ineptly made look at Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a divorced dad who is a basketball coach; Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), his strictly vegetarian jewelry designer ex-wife, and their two daughters, Hannah (Madison Davenport), a typical sassy teen, and the younger, more introspective Em (Natasha Calis).
Everyone lives in improbably large houses on quiet streets in upstate New York. Prior to the arrival of supernatural evil in their lives, their biggest conflict is over whether or not to have pizza for dinner – crunchy mom forbids it, indulgent dad allows it anyway. When the girls and their dad stop at a yard sale, Em buys a dusty wooden box. The box is covered with Hebrew inscriptions, and as soon as it is opened, Em starts acting strangely. The movie is so poorly paced that the morning after Em opens the box for the first time, she stabs her father in the hand with a fork during breakfast, but he doesn’t talk to her mother about his concerns for another 20 minutes or so.
Eventually, enough creepy stuff starts happening – let’s just say that the most important person on this movie set was clearly the moth wrangler – so that the parents seek professional help. After a professor at the college where Clyde works laughingly tells him the word “dybbuk” is inscribed on the box, Clyde is just a few mouse clicks away from a Hassidic rebbe in Borough Park. The rebbe and his cohorts agree that Clyde’s family is threatened by the dybbuk but won’t or can’t help. That’s all right because Tzadok (Matisyahu), the rebbe’s son, is waiting and ready to jump into a car on Shabbat to rid the girl of this evil spirit, explaining the concept of “pikuah nefesh” to her dad as they speed out of Brooklyn.
The climax takes place in the hospital, where the girl is being given a neurological work-up. There’s a bit of mumbling in Hebrew, and Tzadok places a tallit and Torah over the box. This leads to some fairly scary scenes in the hospital morgue, although nothing in this movie approaches the gore/grossness level of The Exorcist, which is clearly its main inspiration.
It’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t make more of the dybbuk legend. There are famous movie versions of S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk, most notably the 1937 film.
Matisyahu, in his feature film debut, is the standout among a very bland cast. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is an affable presence, but he doesn’t have much to do except be oblivious at first and then fret. He will be familiar to television viewers from Magic City, Grey’s Anatomy and Weeds.
Kyra Sedgwick, star of TV’s The Closer, was one of the victims of Bernie Madoff’s scam, and perhaps her decision to participate in this film reflects the fact that she can no longer afford to be choosy.
Another footnote to The Possession is that it includes a rare big-screen appearance by Grant Show, who played Jake on the original Melrose Place. He portrays Brett, the Sedgwick character’s smug dentist boyfriend, who gets his comeuppance in a particularly fitting way.
I saw the movie, which did not have critics’ screenings (this indicates that the film’s distributors strongly suspected it would be panned) with a regular audience, which was comprised exclusively of teen couples on dates. Even the boyfriends in this undemanding crowd went home disappointed, however, as there were only one or two moments scary enough for their girlfriends to need consoling hugs.