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What possessed them to make 'Possession'?

If you only see one demonic possession/Jewish exorcism movie this year, make it "The Possession."

Swap the clerical collars for a yarmulke, change the sacred incantations from Latin to Hebrew, leave out the pea soup and you have a passable PG-13 version of "The Exorcist," the granddaddy of all exorcism movies.

According to Jewish folklore, a Dybbuk box — the original title of this thriller, back when it was rated R and slated to come out last fall — is where the canny and the devout can lock up an evil spirit. Until that evil spirit whispers into the ear of some innocent victim (the more innocent the better) and slips out and takes over the victim's body.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as Clyde, a newly divorced college basketball coach who is trying to make his weekends with his daughters (Natasha Calis, Madison Davenport) pleasant. Then he hits the wrong garage sale, and Emily (Calis), the youngest, buys an odd wooden box with hidden locks and Hebrew carvings on it.

Before Clyde can ask the ex (Kyra Sedgwick), "Have you noticed anything odd going on with Emily?" we're noticing all these odd things going on with Emily. Moths fly out of the box and infest dad's house. Overnight, Emily turns into a Goth girl, taking her fashion tips from the ghost in "The Ring."

"Why is the box so important to you?" dad wants to know. "Don't know. Just is."

Teenagers.

She's hearing voices, wearing a ring from the box that changes the color of her hand, and when she gags, she sees fingers sticking up out of her throat.

Yeah, "odd."

Dad starts looking for answers — from a Jewish academic at his college, a Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, everyone who threatens the box is assaulted by an invisible assailant that flings them against walls and through windows. We see the first attack in the film's opening scene.

Inspired, apparently, by a 2004 newspaper article detailing the "bad luck" felt by various folks who possessed a Holocaust-era box, "The Possession" has a perfunctory "Amityville Horror" feel to it. It's as if, like that film and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," the filmmakers thought their "based on a true story" claim was all the credibility it needed, a story freighted with extra frights simply because it is "true."

Danish director Ole Bornedal manages a few gotchas, some decent jolts. But as spooky as Calis is, the adults have little to work with. Sedgwick registers shock, and Morgan's natural playfulness is introduced then ignored.

The Jewish experts he consults, especially the "Hasidic reggae superstar"-turned-actor Matisyahu, who plays a rabbi's son, are the only ones allowed to make light of all this.

The effects are chilling enough — the buildup has its ominous moments. But the film lacks impact, those horrific sucker punches that take you by surprise and raise the hairs on the back of your neck. By the third or fourth time the angelic-looking Ms. Calis rolls her eyes in that way the possessed do, she isn't the only one.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving violence and disturbing sequences)

Running time: 1:31

Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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