The Possession of Hannah Grace

The Possession of Hannah Grace can’t pay off its promising concept.

Who releases a full-out horror movie in the middle of the holiday season? Apparently Sony-Screen Gems in partnership with Broken Road Productions.

I don’t object to holiday horror, especially as I’ve planned family screenings of Krampus and Rare Exports — hey, one of the earliest Scottish Yuletide traditions was to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve — but there’s no similar holiday theme in The Possession of Hannah Grace, the title suggesting another retread of William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece The Exorcist, which, 45 years later, is still the best exorcism film.

Having avoided trailers for Hannah Grace and figuring it was the same old green pea soup, I was happily surprised that it goes beyond the familiar clichés of its genre. Yes, we do see some priests chanting in Latin, spraying holy water and realizing all they’ve accomplished is to make their target demon angrier — and this is just in the first minute and a half — but then something unexpected happens.

Hannah Grace dies during the exorcism, not unlike 2005’s The Possession of Emily Rose.

This movie isn’t about Hannah Grace and her exorcism at all. It’s about Megan (Shay Mitchell), the lone intake officer at a Boston morgue where Hannah Grace’s corpse is taken. In fact, the film is so atypical of the usual possession film that I wouldn’t have titled it The Possession of ... anybody. Indeed the working title was Cadaver, which I would have stuck with.

Predictably, Megan arrives on the first night of her job with considerable psychological baggage of her own, and Mitchell, familiar to viewers of TV’s Pretty Little Liars, does exceptionally well with her brooding characterization. A former police officer, Megan now believes working with the dead is better for her outlook on life, and I like that screenwriter Brian Sieve and director Diederik Van Rooijen give Mitchell 80 percent of the film’s screen time all by her lonesome, and imbue the morgue itself with a measure of personality.

Nevertheless, the physical makeup of the morgue, which is appropriately creepy and dark for the film’s purpose, is what ultimately breaks down the movie’s internal logic.

The morgue occupies, apparently, the entire basement of a large Boston hospital, replete with all the latest computerized security gadgets, which makes it at least plausible that Megan could staff it alone overnight. The aspect that I just can’t buy is this: Like some 21st century offices I have actually seen, the radar-controlled lights only come on when someone is actually in a room, with segments of hallways turning off as Megan passes beyond local sensor range. Perfect for horror movies, but in real life (as opposed to reel life) would anybody design a morgue to be darker than a medieval crypt? Even without supernatural mumbo jumbo going on, people’s imaginations work on them, especially when they’ve endured personal tragedies, which everyone does eventually.

For that reason — plus a third-act scene where I don’t think enough coverage was shot for a crucial sequence — The Possession of Hannah Grace doesn’t live up to its early promise, despite the fact that Kirby Johnson, as Hannah Grace’s corpse, is creepy as heck just lying still on a slab.

Then there’s the familiar objection by some viewers of pretty much every horror movie: Get out. Just get out when the lights start flickering and the funny scratching noises start. Wouldn’t you?

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