The Possession Of Hannah Grace (2018) Directed by Diederik Van Rooijen. Starring Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon and Kirby Johnson. A troubled Boston morgue attendant and her coworkers are terrorized by the demonically animated corpse of a young girl killed in a failed exorcism. Originally given the far more effective title “Cadaver.”
We open in the middle of a spirited exorcism in what looks like a music video director’s stylized idea of a church. So far, it’s not going great for Team God. Possessed Hannah (Kirby Strong) is busy homicidally levitating screaming priests while her desperate father Grainger plaintively urges the girl to fight the demon inside. And she is able to briefly gain control, causing the demon’s bright blue irises to turn back to Hannah’s brown ones. The respite is short lived, and the evil within resurfaces. After she slaughters one of the holy men and goes to work on the second, Grainger does the unthinkable and mercy kills his only child.
3 months later, we meet ex-cop Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell) on her first day as an overnight intake specialist at the Boston metro morgue. During her career as a uniformed patrol woman, she and her partner were surprised by a traffic stop gunman and Megan froze. Her partner died, leaving her to drown her guilt in pills and booze. After a stint in rehab, her AA sponsor Lisa (Stana Katic) gets Reed a job working in the same hospital as she does. Megan is assigned the solitary late shift, with only the security guards and the occasional EMT for the company.
When a body comes in, Reed carefully photographs it with a large overhead camera, fingerprints it as best she can and then stores it in a drawer.
There’s none of that yucky autopsy stuff.
For reasons known only to the set designers, the morgue itself resembles a futuristic bomb shelter, with artfully streaked stone walls and computer controlled glass doors. It looks like the morgue onboard the Death Star. In your typical police procedural, the cadaver house usually sports white tile walls and sanitized steely surfaces.
Forget all that. This is more like an experimental art installation where bodies are kept.
On Megan’s second night on the job, the burned and mutilated corpse of Hannah is brought in. The girl had been found in an alley, being slashed by a knife wielding maniac who fled. Megan attempts to follow proper procedure, but the camera fails and the fingerprint machine gets all wonky.
Why are the motion activated lights all suddenly going out? Because demons!
Despite the fire and knife damage, the body is perfectly preserved from rot 3 months after death.
Soon, Reed discovers that Hannah’s natural eye color is brown from pulling up her driver license photo and comparing it to the bright blue of the dead body’s open eyes. She also learns that Grace died months before and yet hasn’t progressively decayed.
The slasher from the alley shows up, and Hannah rises from the slab to devour the life force of a hapless security guard. This process heals the nude girl’s knife wounds and begins to restore her body. In motion, we hear the crack of rigor mortis stiffened limbs as the girl crawls on the ceiling or slithers across the floors of darkened hallways. It’s very much in the vein of your average J-horror ghost, minus the long hair and clothing. Like the film’s overly long and generic title, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Hannah’s mouth opens to an incredible degree, she’s hella strong, there’s a swarm of insects, she has telekinetic powers, etc.
Lisa, a nice guy paramedic and even Megan’s police officer ex-boyfriend Andrew (Grey Damon) fall prey to Hannah’s powers. In one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in a flick filled with them, Hannah murders a security guard in front of Andrew, who unholsters his gun and says lazily:
There’s no exclamation point because his line delivery is more appropriate for letting someone at a party know that they’ve skipped past the channel showing the big game, not confronting a naked corpse with cracking joints who just came down from the ceiling to rip out a man’s throat and then visibly healed her own injuries instantly. Maybe he should’ve tried something more like:
Hannah has ample opportunities to add Megan to the growing list of victims, but the worst thing she does is push Reed to the floor and sniff her hair. A character even asks why the demon corpse seems reluctant to slay the ex-cop, signaling a possible revelation that never comes. Either Hannah really likes the way her hair smells, or its just bad writing to foreshadow a reveal and not follow through.
Let’s formalize this. Here’s the good and bad categorized.
Despite the tired demonic theatrics the script gives her, actress Kirby Strong undeniably gives her all as the titular villain. Since she’s not playing a human being, but a dead body being puppeteered by a demon; there’s some layers happening. She moves jerkily at first, before becoming more sure footed as she heals. There’s also a good deal of demonic snarling, and she captures a terrified paramedic by crushing two parked ambulances together with her superpowers. Strong is definitely not the weakest link in the picture.
The first death is pretty great.
The fact that Hannah heals after each kill is kind of a cool twist, though I wish the later kills had been bumped up to 11. With an R-rating and a gruesome opening death, the murders quickly lose impact when they occur either completely offscreen or we just see the victim’s feet as they are levitated to their doom. But the halfway original idea is there, and the healing effects are done well.
After seeing the trailer several weeks ago, I had predicted that the film would end with Hannah transferring her guest into Megan’s healthier body. And after they introduced the changing eye color notion, I thought for sure we would see Shay Mitchell’s beautiful dark eyes go bright blue. I was dead wrong on both counts. So much for predictability.
Shay is miscast as Megan. I’ve seen reviews faintly praising her work in the film, but she’s playing a character who should have some edge and bite. The “Pretty Little Liars” star comes off more like a smooth stone in a riverbed, every flaw sanded off by eons of rushing currents. I never bought her addiction struggles, her regret over freezing up or anything else. She’s too low key, too even-tempered and logical to read as a woman who had been through trauma and dealt with it using narcotics and booze.
Addicts, particularly in early recovery, are not level-headed.
The role cries out for the weary cynicism of Melissa Leo or even Jessica Biel, who stunned with her complex portrayal of a PTSD sufferer in “The Sinner.” We need to get inside Reed’s head, and there has to be a point where the supernatural horror elements going on around her collide with the internal emotional struggle and human flaws in our unstable heroine.
That moment of collision is where the meat is.
How will this already damaged person react when faced with a monster that her mind says shouldn’t exist?
We need to go through that gut-wrenching spiritual journey of survival towards either redemption or doom, like Shauna Macdonald’s Sarah in Neil Marshall’s masterpiece “The Descent.” None of those needs are met, even though the climax basically reenacts a supernatural version of the street shooting that changed Megan’s life.
People who are in pain are sometimes difficult to love and do and say ugly things. That’s the kind of depth we needed in this heroine, and didn’t get.
Although miscasting is part of the problem, Brian Sieve’s script meets it halfway. Megan doesn’t say or do anything we haven’t heard a thousand other addicts and burned out ex-cops already utter on the silver screen. And when you set out to make the umpteenth demonic possession movie, it’s important to remember that you’re entering a horror subgenre that has been well tread. We’ve seen it all, from Regan McNeil’s spinning head to Session 9’s chilling portrait of spirits inhabiting emotionally broken individuals. Give us a new take on it. Also, Megan comes to suspect the truth about Hannah much earlier than is plausible. If strange occurrences are happening to a rational human being, they don’t immediately say:
“You know what? It’s probably an unkillable demon inside a corpse that’s doing this.”
It barely qualifies as an R-rated film.
I doubt that the sight of several relatively tame dead bodies in the morgue is enough to keep 17-year-olds up at night. There’s a couple silly jump scares, almost no gore and it’s really not scary. You can feel how much it wants us to invest in Megan’s drama, but the lead actress and the script are blocking us from empathy.
At one point, Lisa encounters a security guard victim of Hannah’s who has now become a silvery eyed zombie minion of the demon. Cool idea, right? It is completely abandoned. It could’ve created a wave of secondary antagonists for Megan to gruesomely dispatch using morgue autopsy bone saws, like a medical version of “Evil Dead.” As with the bulk of “The Possession Of Hannah Grace,” it was a missed opportunity.
I’ve always said that the worst kind of bad movies are the ones that contain redeemable elements that could’ve added up to a very different flick.
If you watch something and hate everything about it, there are no regrets beyond your spent time. But with a ho-hum film like this, which takes potentially shocking material and executes it in a pedestrian and dull fashion, you fantasize about how bloody and terrifying it would’ve been if they put more effort into creating a unique and unsettling experience.
Hannah Grace may have an evil spirit lurking beneath her skin, but she’s just not haunting.
Body count: 7
- A man is impaled through the head on a metal spike
- A woman is suffocated
- A man has his neck broken
- A woman has her arms and neck broken
- A man has his neck broken
- A man is incinerated alive
- A man has his throat torn out