Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic
WASHINGTON – Certain plot designs are so universal — love triangles, buddy flicks, and whodunnit murder mysteries — that they can be done over and over again. Other topics, however, have been done so uniquely, so originally, with such pop culture impact, that it’s impossible to avoid comparison.
If you make a movie about a killer shark (“Open Water,” “Deep Blue Sea”), you’ll automatically be compared to “Jaws” (1975).
If you make a movie about a boxing underdog (“The Fighter,” “Cinderella Man”), you’ll instantly draw comparison to “Rocky” (1976).
And if you make a movie about an exorcism, there’s no escaping “The Exorcist” (1973).
Seeing as next year marks the 40th anniversary of William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece, I couldn’t help keeping score against Hollywood’s latest release, “The Possession,” which is currently No. 1 at the box office after a strong Labor Day weekend. Ideally, each movie should be judged on its own merits, but my mind couldn’t help running a side-by-side comparison every step of the way.
Based on his own best-selling novel, William Peter Blatty adapted “The Exorcist” into an Oscar-winning screenplay. It tells the tale of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the 12-year-old daughter of a single mother and Hollywood actress, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), who lives in Georgetown while working on her next project. After a series of unexplainable events and violent outbursts by her daughter, who claims to be The Devil, Chris realizes that doctors cannot help her. She turns to two priests, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), a spiritually conflicted man who’s guilt-ridden over his ailing mother, and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), a world- traveling exorcist and the one man who can drive out the demon.
“The Possession” follows a similar plot of a possessed little girl from a broken home. Em (Natasha Calis) and her sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) are grappling with the divorce of their parents, Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). They move with their father into a developing suburban community, where Em visits a yard sale and finds a mysterious box with ancient Hebrew carvings. Her odd obsession with the box turns into full-on possession by a child-feasting demon from Jewish lore, forcing Clyde to seek out a Rabbi to perform an exorcism.
The script, co-written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, is supposedly based on a true story chronicled in the Los Angeles Times about a “dybbuk box” purchased on eBay. I don’t mind that the script takes liberties with the actual events. I mind that it unfolds rather predictably, following a “cookie cutter” formula. While it sets up a fascinating family dynamic of distrust and divorce in the first half, it loses sight of it down the stretch. Em’s sister, Hannah, practically disappears mid-way through the film, when the exact opposite would have been more fascinating. A girl’s reaction to her possessed sister would have provided a fresh take on the genre.
Rather than keeping the possession isolated to a single girl or single family, we see various people killed by the box — teachers, neighbors, and an opening murder that pales in comparison to “Scream” (1996). The outside murders pull focus from the main story, and their instant deaths feel inconsistent with Em’s slow possession. The writers had the right instinct to play up the family dynamic, but they should have left it there, leaving the skeptical outside world to doubt the supernatural elements. “Us against the world” is much scarier. Hopefully Snowden and White remember this in their upcoming (sigh) remake of “Poltergeist” (1982).
Like “Poltergeist,” these tales rely heavily on the child actress. “The Exorcist” thrived off young Linda Blair, who earned an Oscar nomination and won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. She was a trendsetter of creepy child actors, three years before Harvey Stephens in “The Omen” (1976) and 26 years before Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense” (1999).
In “The Possession,” child actress Natasha Calis is most definitely creepy, but her outbursts are more erratic with back-and-forth spells that spoil the gradual arc from innocence to monster. Don’t expect an Oscar nomination for Calis, who unlike Blair lacks the demonic voice dubbing of Mercedes McCambridge, decades after her Oscar win for “All the King’s Men” (1949) and Oscar nomination for “Giant” (1956). Together, the two turned Regan MacNeil into the AFI’s No. 9 Villain of All Time.
In both movies, the gimmick must be sold by the shock of the other characters. You can see the horror in the faces of Jason Miller, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in his film debut; Lee J. Cobb, who revived his career decades after “On the Waterfront” (1954) and “12 Angry Men” (1957); and Ellen Burstyn, who earned her second Oscar nomination, setting up her win the following year for Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974).
The “Possession” parents are played by familiar TV faces in Morgan (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Sedgwick (“The Closer”) and Grant Show (“Melrose Place”), but none has proven yet that he or she can carry a film. Morgan’s desperate chants, asking the demon to “Take me!” are hard to embrace, because we’ve already heard Miller scream them just before his legendary dive down the “Exorcist” steps.
Last but not least, Max von Sydow became legend in “The Exorcist” title role, introduced to American audiences after a career with Ingmar Bergman in Sweden (ironically Bergman’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist beat out the “Exorcist” cinematographer for the Oscar). Von Sydow’s stoic presence is exactly what’s missing in “The Possession.” Reggae/rapper Matisyahu plays the Jewish exorcist with charm, but I couldn’t help laughing during his exorcism.
These actors are all at the mercy of their respective directors, and needless to say, Blair and Burstyn had the better filmmaker. “The Exorcist” was Friedkin’s follow-up to “The French Connection” (1971), which had won Best Picture and Best Director two years prior. Think about that. That’s like the Coen Brothers making a horror movie after “No Country For Old Men” (2007) or Danny Boyle after “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008). The clout alone demands attention, because you know you’re getting a masterfully paced drama, regardless of genre. “The Exorcist” earned Friedkin a Golden Globe for Best Director and another Oscar nomination.
A similar comparison could have been made for “The Possession” if producer Sam Raimi had taken the directing reins. Don’t be fooled by the trailers reading, “Sam Raimi Presents.” Raimi is the producer, the financial and managerial organizer-in- chief, while the creative vision belongs to Danish director Ole Bornedal (“Nightwatch”).
I read an interview with Bornedal saying he doesn’t care for many horror movies because of the gore. Instead, he praised the “subtlety” of directors like Roman Polanski. In “The Possession,” this subtlety exists in the family scenes, but the murders are too stylized and hyper-realistic with bodies flying around the room with computer graphics.
Of course, “The Exorcist” was far from subtle in its brutal possession scenes. In fact, it’s one of the most graphic, grotesque movies I’ve ever seen, with a spinning head, crucifix masturbation, upside-down stair crawl, green vomit spew and levitating bed. Upon its release, Roger Ebert wrote, “That it received an R rating and not the X is stupefying.” The difference is that the shock value builds upon itself, is self-contained to a single room, and is broken up by well-paced scenes of character study. “The Possession” takes its grotesqueness on the run, to different people and different places, killing the illusion and our suspension of disbelief.
It also relies on tricks we’ve seen before, like a hand coming out of a mouth (“The Grudge”), a girl standing with hair over her face (“The Ring”), a sick girl eating raw meat (“Rosemary’s Baby”) and moths coming out of a throat (“The Silence of the Lambs”). I understand if a popcorn horror flick doesn’t set out to win Oscars or even be original. But if it isn’t artistically made, at least let it be scary.
I barely flinched, because if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen it all.
Perhaps the creepy difference maker is the music. “The Possession” uses a largely piano score by composer Anton Sanko, who on multiple occasions mimics the two-note salvo of “Jaws.”
Meanwhile, “The Exorcist” made brilliant use of “Tubular Bells,” the debut 1973 album of Mike Oldfield, who rose the Billboard charts as “The Exorcist” dominated the box office. It has since become the soundtrack to many of our Halloweens.
It’s still too early to say whether “The Possession” will have any lasting pop culture impact, as the ending leaves room for a sequel that could keep the franchise going. But judging by the empty theater I saw this week, I have a feeling it will soon be dethroned as the top film at the box office.
It certainly won’t have the run of “The Exorcist,” which had moviegoers vomiting outside theaters and coming back for more. When adjusted for inflation, it remains the ninth highest grossing movie of all time and the single highest grossing R rated film in history.
The box office power is matched by critical acclaim. The film won two Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound) and was nominated for 10 total, including Best Picture. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture: Drama. How many horror films can claim similar success? Numerous publications have called it “the scariest movie of all time,” and it recently ranked No. 3 in BRAVO’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments and No. 3 in the AFI’s 100 Thrills.
Perhaps I’m taking a longer view of important moments in film history, seeing imitations as inferior unless they truly offer something new, like the courtroom parallel action of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005). Or, maybe I’m biased by the local connections of the original, taking tourists to the “Exorcist” steps every chance I get, noting the house’s distance from the stairs as proof of the “magic of editing.” But to me, “The Possession” doesn’t even come close to “The Exorcist.” It’s comparing a trend-follower to a trend-setter, a flavor of the week to a landmark in the medium’s evolution.
If you want a few scares on a Friday date night, go for it. But if you want a memorable movie experience, this one’s not turning any heads.
★ ★ ★★
The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking “Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)