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'The Possession' is scary enough to grab your attention

12:49 AM, Aug. 31, 2012
Matisyahu, from left, Natasha Calis, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick appear in a scene from the motion picture 'The Possession.' (Gannett, Diyah Pera/Lionsgate/File)
Matisyahu, from left, Natasha Calis, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick appear in a scene from the motion picture 'The Possession.' (Gannett, Diyah Pera/Lionsgate/File) / GANNETT
Natasha Calis stars in 'The Possession.' / LIONSGATE

‘The Possession’

★ ★ ½
(fair to good)
Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences.

Matisyahu, left, and Natasha Calis appear in a scene from the motion picture 'The Possession.' (Gannett, Diyah Pera/Lionsgate/File) / GANNETT

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In a film called “The Possession,” you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get.

Evil spirit takes over the body of an innocent victim, yeah? Yeah. The trick is whether you can make it scary. (A good story is a plus also, but if you get the scary part right enough, that sometimes glosses over plot holes.)

“The Possession” isn’t exactly “The Exorcist,” but Ole Bornedal’s film hits enough of the necessary high notes to make it a worthwhile addition to the exorcism-film heap. Not at the top, but it fits nicely somewhere in the lower middle.

Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a basketball coach at a small college in New York. He is amicably separated, in that just-in-movies way, from his wife, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), though he doesn’t have much use for her Eddie Haskell-like new beau (Grant Show). Their daughters, Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Em (Natasha Calis), spend most of their time at Stephanie’s house, but weekends with their dad, who has just moved into a new house.

Though friendly, the separation is still fresh enough that everyone involved is still feeling things out, learning how to live their lives in a different way. Clyde spoils the girls, at least in Stephanie’s view, letting them eat pizza and other unhealthy food. So it’s no surprise that, when Clyde takes the girls to yard sales, he lets them buy whatever they want.

Em, who holds out hope her mom and dad will get back together (Clyde, it’s evident, also does), chooses an old wooden box, which Clyde buys for her. As we have learned from a brief prologue, there’s something bad about the box, something evil.

Almost immediately Em becomes obsessed with the box, and just as quickly starts to feel strange.

“I don’t feel like myself,” she tells Hannah, and horror-movie veterans know that this is code for: “RED ALERT! RED ALERT!” Alas, even as Em’s behavior grows more and more unusual, it’s all written off to her unsettled emotions over her parent’s separation.

That’s a nice touch in the screenplay, written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White: Almost everything can be explained away with logic and reason. That’s great news if you’re a demon trying to possess someone, but less good news for Em.

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What adds to the horror is Clyde’s well-grounded fear of losing his girls. He’s already on notice for putting his job first, and a move up to a school in North Carolina is in the works. A few more events make things even trickier.

Bornedal doesn’t show much explicitly, at least not for a while. Instead, he sets the mood with creepy music, gray skies and muted whispers. It’s effective, to a point.

So, too, is the story and the acting. But only to a point. Morgan is such a likable presence, a good ol’ guy kind of fellow, that it’s easy to empathize with him as he struggles to figure out what’s going on. He’s less good once he does figure it out. Then he, and the story, resort to by-the-numbers horror riffs, playing a tune we’ve heard too many times before.

(Calis is an exception. She is really good throughout.)

The film is based on a supposedly true story. Google it, and you will be sufficiently creeped out. A little more so than you might be by the movie, in fact. “The Possession” will scare you in the moment, but unlike the best of these kinds of films, it won’t haunt you.

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