Horror Movies

THE POSSESSION. Jewish dybbuk-inspired horror movie

The Exorcist solidified in the viewer’s consciousness a specific, highly characteristic image – that of a battered, terrifyingly contorted girl…

Grzegorz Fortuna

14 March 2024

THE POSSESSION. Jewish dybbuk-inspired horror movie

…, speaking with the voice of a demon possessing her body. And although fifty years have passed since the premiere of William Friedkin’s outstanding thriller, the subgenre of horror dealing with possession seems to still remain stagnant.

Filmmakers of this genre rarely let themselves be carried away by creative inventiveness; instead, they repeat clichés, mindlessly filming more girls with demonic gazes. Ole Bornedal, the director of The Possession tried to escape the trap of conventionality, but his efforts were ultimately drowned out by worn-out scare tactics and derivative plot resolutions.

The Possession Jeffrey Dean Morgan Kyra Sedgwick

Clyde Brenek (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the illegitimate child of Javier Bardem and Robert Downey Jr.) recently separated from his wife and is now trying to make up for the unpleasant family situation with his two teenage daughters. One day he takes them to a garage sale, where the younger one, Emily (excellently portrayed by Natasha Calis), finds a mysterious wooden box adorned with Hebrew inscriptions. It quickly becomes apparent that the box contains not only decayed artifacts but also a real dybbuk – a malevolent spirit drawn from Jewish folklore, which will now attempt to possess Emily’s body, turning the likable girl into a mean and terrifying creature.

The Possession Natasha Calis

The Possession begins and unfolds in a rather intriguing manner. We are not dealing with a “typical” Christian demon, but with the aforementioned dybbuk – a being with its own home and a specific physical shell that can only be expelled by an orthodox Jew familiar with the appropriate rituals. This kind of setup opens up entirely new possibilities for the director. However, Bornedal fails to capitalize on them – either fearing he won’t meet the audience’s expectations or lacking the ability to develop the story in a slightly more unconventional manner. As a result, The Possession quickly becomes a mediocre horror film, filled with scenes that try to elicit any reaction from the audience but never truly frighten – the demon constantly tosses someone around the room and throws objects, while Emily is forced to stand in the middle of the frame in a wrinkled shirt, sinister makeup, and disheveled hair, resembling a grotesque combination of Regan from The Exorcist and Sadako from The Ring. We’ve seen it all before, and it stopped scaring anyone long ago.

The Possession

The same goes for the parallel storyline of the broken family. Ole Bornedal allegedly intended to turn The Possession into an allegory about the nightmare of post-divorce trauma. But what’s the point when the entire pair of his film ultimately descends into cheap scares and plot twists lifted straight from B-movie horrors? When a wise professor suddenly appears on the screen, introduced into the story for only two minutes to explain the intricacies of Jewish demonology to the main character, one might get the impression that halfway through writing the story, the screenwriter suffered a brain hemorrhage. It only gets worse from there – Jewish mysticism serves the director merely as a flashy decoration, and the finale feels like it was cut out of a horror template.

The Possession Natasha Calis

The Possession is somewhat saved by very good acting performances and solid execution. However, this does not change the fact that Ole Bornedal promises the viewer a lot and then fails to fulfill those promises in any way. If one were to watch The Possession at all, it would be more for the curiosity associated with the language the demon speaks. The dybbuk speaks… Polish! And indeed, it’s real Polish, not – as in the case of the cult favorite The Shrine – Polish-English-god-knows-what. Being repeatedly hissed by the demon zjem twoje serce! (I’ll eat your heart!) sounds genuinely sinister and makes Bornedal’s film slightly more interesting to watch.