Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The Possession: Continuing the Jewish Legacy of Horror Films

Here is a quick question for all the haters demonstrating on college campuses: do you enjoy horror films? They would hardly exist as we know them without Jewish artists and creators. Yiddish films like The Golem and silent German movies such as [Jewish director] Paul Leni’s Waxworks largely created the genre. Horror became commercially viable thanks to Universal Studio boss Carl Laemmle and Karl Freund, the cinematographer or director of many classic Universal Monster movies. Since then, filmmakers like William Friedkin, Sam Raimi, Lloyd Kaufman, and Eli Roth substantially contributed to the horror genre’s evolution. Recently, several horror films have re-embraced horror’s Jewish roots. The Raimi-produced The Possession led the pack, featuring the child-snatching demon Abyzou a decade prior to Oliver Lake’s The Offering. Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal’s Possession deserves a second look when it airs Friday on the Movies! Network.

College basketball coach Clyde Brenek is somewhat separated from his wife Stephanie, but she is extremely separated from him. Their daughters Hannah and Emily are stuck in the middle. During their weekend with dad, Emily acquires a mysterious box with Hebrew inscriptions at an estate sale. She quickly becomes weirdly attached to it. Soon thereafter, she starts lashing out and even tries to frame her father for abuse.

After consulting with a campus folklorist, Brenek realizes his daughter released the demon held captive in a dybbuk box. He seeks help from the Brooklyn Hassidic establishment, but they are too scared to help. However, the chief rabbi’s young, rebellious son, Rabbi Tzadok Shapir believes he is bound by his faith and duty to help the desperate Brenek family. Indeed, things get so bad while Brenek is in Brooklyn, his ex and their teen daughter are willing to listen to him when he returns with a strange rabbi.

Juliet Snowden & Stiles White’s screenplay is based on a non-fiction article chronicling the checkered history of the real-life dybbuk box now in the possession (so to speak) of Zak Bagans. Many of the demonic elements will feel familiar, but the film still fruitfully taps into deep archetypal themes. It is also not as graphic as many horror films, having successfully appealed its way down to a PG-13 rating.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan has a credible everyman vibe going on as the understandably alarmed Brenek. However, Kyra Sedgwick largely hits the usual cliched ex-wife notes as Stephanie Brenek, at least until all heck literally breaks out. However, Jewish rapper and reggae singer Matisyahu (who originally rose to fame when he still identified as Orthodox) is terrific as Shapir, who is sort of like an Orthodox Father Karras. Young Natasha Calis also freaks out really convincingly as the possessed “Em” Brenek.

Bornedal is stylish filmmaker, whose signature frosty look is still evident throughout
The Possession. It takes its Judaic themes seriously, just like The Exorcist respected Roman Catholic teachings. The film also deserves more credit for leading a wave of Judaic-themed horror films, such as The Offering, The Vigil, The Golem (2018), JeruZalem, and Demon. Recommended for horror fans, The Possession airs Friday night (12/29) on Movies! and it streams on Hulu.