Characters. Characters matter. Especially in “scary” movies—after all, how can I experience true fear if I don’t care about the people on the big screen? Yet Hollywood screenwriters continue populate the genre with walking, talking stereotypes—stupid teenagers who deserve to be punished for their stupidity (see: this year’s Chernobyl Diaries). This utter lack of empathy leaves most modern horror films only one plot to play with: “Make the wicked and/or ignorant suffer for their sins.” That isn’t frightening; it’s just morbid.
Fortunately, Ole Bornedal, director of the Sam Raimi-produced The Possession, understands the importance of good characters. After a brief opening shock, he introduces us to a family we instantly recognize—perhaps as our own, or as our friend’s, or as our neighbor’s. It is a family recently splintered by divorce, and although the parents remain civil in their conversations, the tension that forced them apart permeates the subtext of every scene. The father (a credible Jeffrey Dean Morgan) stubbornly—deliberately—refuses to remove his shoes as he enters his ex-wife’s home for weekend visits. She constantly nags him about their daughters’ dietary restrictions. He distracts himself with his work as a high school basketball coach, misses important milestones in the girls’ lives, and neglects to mention a new job offer in another city. Bornedal introduces conflict—believable, meaningful conflict—even before the supernatural artifact enters the picture, making the ensuing horror more engaging, more satisfying, more real.
The cursed object du jour is a “dybbuk box,” a tiny prison for a malevolent spirit of Jewish folklore. It falls, quite by accident, into the hands of younger daughter Em, who still quietly hopes that her parents will reconcile. Slowly, the entity twists her fear, frustration, and repressed anger into something violent, something wicked. Bornedal achieves this transformation through a little bit of CGI trickery (for milky-white eyes and such) and a whole lot of very convincing acting; he finds terror not in spinning heads and projectile vomit, but in actress Natasha Calis’ uncanny ability to convey the duality of demonic possession. At times, the girl’s eyes communicate pure evil—and yet, the tears rolling down her cheek as she psychically assaults her father or creeps up on her mother clutching a jagged shard of glass illustrate her lingering innocence, fighting for control. This emphasis on performance rather than special effects makes the family’s skepticism feel natural and plausible (more plausible than the “true story” that inspired the tale, I’m sure); until the very end, Em’s bad behavior can be attributed to the pain of watching her parents’ marriage dissolve (remember, we have a privileged view of the paranormal activity). This foundation of drama helps the viewer better relate to the characters—and thus, the ordeal they face is all the more terrifying.