The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018)

NOVEMBER 29, 2018

GENRE: POSSESSION, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

For what it's worth, there's nothing particularly terrible about The Possession of Hannah Grace - it's actually kind of OK for the most part, and it's mercifully brief (85 minutes) compared to the seemingly now-standard two hours (or more) length of everything else playing right now (even Wreck it Ralph 2 is in that vicinity - as was Incredibles 2. KIDS DON'T HAVE THAT MUCH PATIENCE!). It's just that it's nothing particularly memorable either; you'll be more or less engaged by it and forget about it by the time you get home. At this time of the year, it's an odd choice for a wide release: counter programming only really works when it's something on the total end of the spectrum from the Oscar bait and family films. Most folks will just choose to save the 15 bucks and stay home.

But if you're like me and determined to see every one of these things, at least you won't be in for a miserable time like Slender Man or Rings. And if you've seen enough possession movies in your life, you'll probably be as amused/relieved as I was to see that the obligatory exorcism scene is actually the first one in the movie, and no it's not a flash-forward, either. The exorcism isn't going well, and so her father decides the only thing to do is to just kill his daughter in the hopes that the demon will be trapped inside of her corpse. Then we skip ahead a few months and meet our real main character: Megan (Shay Mitchell), a recovering junkie and ex-cop who takes a thankless gig working the night shift at the morgue. Guess whose body shows up on her second night on the job?

The poor dad also shows up, trying to destroy the body in the morgue's incinerator, which of course marks him as a crazy person. Then spooky things start happening and Megan gets the idea that maybe there's more to this corpse than there should be. So it's kind of like Autopsy of Jane Doe (but written before that film's release, I understand) meets the unseen sequel to an exorcism movie, which is kind of a fun concept, with the added bonus of some mild "is she just going crazy/having withdrawals" flavor as Megan struggles with PTSD (her partner got killed in part because of her failure to stop a suspect). And thankfully, it's not just a fake scare-fest either; there's one early on that's so telegraphed I assume the director wanted to let the audience know well in advance that he just had to get this sort of thing out of the way and we shouldn't put much stock into it, but otherwise it's virtually free of such nonsense.

It's also a relatively "quiet" horror film, especially considering that it's a Screen Gems release, as those folks have never found a loud clanging noise they couldn't amplify when the time was right (i.e. when it had been more than five minutes since the last one). There are a few scares that involve Grace's corpse (or her father) doing something in the background behind her, without her noticing, and there's no loud musical sting or anything like that to accompany such moments - you might even miss them if you're focused on Megan instead of the space behind her. Even some of the more traditional scary scenes (i.e. a fight to the death) run without music, and other times the film was so quiet I could actually hear A Star is Born booming from the adjacent theater ("Shallows", specifically). I should note that this is an R rated film, so I guess they figured if teens weren't coming they didn't have to make sure they had something to get them to look up from their phones every few minutes.

Oddly, it's only when the film switches into "exciting action" mode that it starts to fall part some. You can probably figure it out for yourself but eventually the movie tells us what's going on: since the body wasn't destroyed, the demon inside of Hannah's corpse needs to kill to get stronger and be up and about again. Fine, but it doesn't actually correlate to what we see, as the demon seems to be doing just fine while housed in the mangled cadaver (Cadaver was the film's original/better title, for the record, before they ran it through their The Scary Word Of A Girl's Name generator), nor does it seem to be any less powerful as a result of its predicament. In fact, the most elaborate of its kills is the first one she pulls off at the morgue, a ridiculous sequence where she uses some form of telekinetic power to lift a person into the air, pretzel up their body a bit, and then make them fly directly into one of the morgue's body drawers - this is her at her weakest? She also doesn't even seem confined to the morgue - one or two kills later occurs on the hospital's roof, where she does something similar and then returns to her drawer, for reasons I can't quite understand. If there was some escalation to her abilities, and/or noticeable limitation to what she could do, maybe this would work, but as presented it doesn't make a lot of sense. When doing these kind of things it's super important that the "rules" are clear and consistent to maintain suspense, but they bungle that. They also try to make Hannah dying months ago into a "Dun Dun DUNNNN!" kind of moment but we already knew that from the opening, so I'm not sure what the thinking was there.

It's saved (relatively) by the characters, all of whom are good folks who don't deserve to die. Megan's backstory is fresher than most (though I'm not sure if having her be distraught over NOT shooting someone is the most timely idea), and there are no real antagonists: her ex boyfriend, the security guards, the paramedic who drops off corpses, etc. are all personable and decent, and I liked that her rehab sponsor was another woman, Lisa (Castle's Stana Katic), who helps her get the gig and checks in on her (so hey, it even passes the Bechdel test!), as opposed to the usual "sponsor as romantic interest" concept. Some characters exist only to give exposition - there's an early scene where the guy in charge shows her the ropes and pretty much everything he says is just setting up a scare later ("These lights are automated" "The door won't open without this keycard" "Here's the incinerator") - but otherwise it's a refreshingly adult group of people going through the silly motions of what would normally be a PG-13 movie, so I was kind of charmed by that.

(Also, Megan and Lisa share some Dunkins coffee, properly establishing the Boston setting which was slightly bungled by setting it at the non-existent Boston Metro Hospital, even though it was really shot there instead of Canada or wherever.)

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the movie is that it doesn't feel like something that would normally get a wide release. It reminded me of the better entries from the 8 Films To Die For or Ghost House Underground series: smaller, imperfect films that got their job done as a Saturday night rental, but would get creamed if put in the multiplexes. The small scale of it is admirable and refreshing, but I just had too much trouble with Hannah's corpse seemingly having no limitations to what it could do, keeping it out of what almost could have been "must-see" territory. As is, it's the equivalent of one of those studio comedies that are only really worth watching on a plane - a decent distraction and nothing more. Now that Moviepass is dead it's harder to justify the ticket price for such fare (though if you have AMC's A-List it's definitely worth one of your three weekly options), so unless you're a huge fan of Shay Mitchell I'd say you can wait until it hits Redbox to check it out.

What say you?

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