Keep a close eye on what your children buy at yard sales, suggests “The Possession,” a ho-hum exorcism chiller that tries to spice up a formulaic screenplay by converting a predominantly Catholic-fixated horror subgenre to Judaism. Very loosely “based on” a 2004 Los Angeles Times article by journo Leslie Gornstein about the eBay auction of a “dybbuk box,” this latest production from Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures falls in line with the outfit’s most instantly forgettable PG-13 fright fare, following the sturdy bow (and immediate collapse) of demonic possession thriller “The Devil Inside” earlier this year.
For those unfamiliar with Jewish folklore — and too impatient to wait for the film’s explanation, which doesn’t arrive until halfway through the running time — a dybbuk is a spirit lingering in the land of the living, often with the malicious intent of seeking a human host to latch onto. The unlucky victim in this case is preteen Em (Natasha Calis), younger daughter of a recently divorced couple in upstate New York, workaholic basketball coach Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and worrisome jewelry designer Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). It’s Dad who allows Em to buy the suspicious box without realizing the danger lurking inside and first notices the symptoms of possession, while Mom writes it off as adolescent angst brought on by parental separation.
Things are bad enough when Em stabs Clyde’s hand with a fork during breakfast and lays a beatdown on a bratty classmate at school. Once she devours raw meat from the refrigerator and then enacts toothy torture on Stephanie’s well-meaning dentist boyfriend (Grant Show), it becomes evident to all that help is seriously needed. Enter Tzadok (Hasidic rap and reggae artist Matisyahu making his acting debut), the devout but eccentric son of a rabbi who offers aid and a spiritual solution when no one else will.
Screenwriters Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (“Knowing”) and director Ole Bornedal (“Nightwatch”) save Tzadok’s flashy exorcism setpiece for the film’s climax, leaving the majority of the screen time to alternate between the tepid scares generated by Em’s antics and the thinly sketched drama of Clyde and Stephanie’s broken marriage. The couple’s older daughter, Hannah (Madison Davenport), spends half her time as a stereotypically sassy teen and the rest in hysterics over what’s happening to her little sister.
For Morgan and Sedgwick, there’s little either can do to invigorate characters designed strictly to serve the plot. In contrast with many possession films, there’s not even an attempt to explore the protagonists’ religious convictions, or lack thereof. They’re just understandably upset about their daughter. The showiest material falls to young Calis (a regular on the ill-fated TV adaptation of “The Firm”), who delivers the film’s creepiest moments as Em smoothly switches back-and-forth from demonic force to a child frightened by what’s inside her.
Tech credits are fine by genre standards, though special mention should be made of “moth wrangler” Brad MacDonald, the man responsible for handling 2,000 insects during a particularly skin-crawling sequence that starts with Hannah brushing her teeth. This also may be the rare horror film to boast a “Judaic Consultant” credit (Rabbi Shmuel Birnham has the honors, for the record).
“The Possession” was shot under the working title “Dybbuk Box” with a clear mission to expand that spirit’s pop-culture status (dybbuks previously factored into 2009’s forgettable “The Unborn” and a more enduring Yiddish stage play, “The Dybbuk”). But the more generic final title better suits a wan effort with nothing genuinely new to offer.