'The Possession of Hannah Grace': Film Review

It's time to exorcise demonic possession films.
11/30/2018

An ex-cop working the graveyard shift at a morgue discovers that the cadaver of a young girl is possessed by a demon in Diederik van Rooijen's horror film.

You'd think by now that the Catholic Church would realize that exorcisms never work out well, at least for them. The point is hammered home in the first few minutes of Diederik van Rooijen's horror film The Possession of Hannah Grace when two priests fall victim to the demon inhabiting the titular character's body. The encounter ends with the young girl's anguished father smothering his daughter to death with a pillow. That would normally mark the end of the story, but it's only the beginning of the otherwise very familiar-feeling pic, which doesn't bring anything new to its very tired genre.

The story then picks up three months later, focusing on Megan (Shay Mitchell, Pretty Little Liars), an ex-cop suffering from "issues" after the death of her partner. Precariously recovering from substance addiction, Megan makes the dubious career choice of working the solo graveyard shift at a Boston hospital morgue, where she handles the intake of fresh cadavers. Among those worried that the stress will cause her to relapse are her ex-boyfriend cop Andrew (Grey Damon) and her sponsor Lisa (Stana Katic, Castle), a nurse working at the hospital.

Megan's first night on the job sees the arrival of the horribly disfigured corpse of a murdered teenage girl. The matter seems routine at first, at least until a menacing man bangs at the door and demands to be let in. Assuming he's merely a homeless person, Megan fends him off. But he later manages to sneak in and attempts to steal the body and burn it in the incinerator, claiming that the girl is not actually dead.

The hospital's security guards (Max McNamara, Jacob-Ming-Trent) subdue the intruder, but the night only gets stranger. Megan begins noticing weird phenomena, including the body having the habit of not staying in its drawer as well as seeming to miraculously heal itself. The mystery further deepens when Megan discovers that the body is that of Hannah Grace (Kirby Johnson), who died three months earlier during the exorcism. But Hannah, or at least the demon inside her, is not going to let a little thing like death get in the way of her wreaking havoc.

There are few settings more spookily atmospheric than a morgue late at night (check out 2016's superior The Autopsy of Jane Doe for further proof), and Dutch director van Rooijen, making his American feature debut, milks the setup effectively. But Hannah Grace never overcomes the compendium of clichés in Brian Sieve's screenplay, which resembles a greatest hits of demonic possession films. The title character inevitably calls to mind the similarly afflicted young girl in The Exorcist, with Hannah demonstrating the same sort of contortionist abilities exhibited by Linda Blair's Regan (at least in the 2000 rerelease version including the spider walk scene). Johnson's dance background serves her well here, with the young actress delivering an arresting physical performance (she doesn't have much in the way of dialogue, her character being a corpse).

The demon in this film seems much more lethal, however, messing not with people's minds but rather their bodies. This results in a series of repetitive episodes in which Hannah uses telekinetic powers to deliver the sort of bone-crunching harm to her victims that render them in serious need of an osteopath. Many of the pic's jolts are provided by the excellent sound design that will prove especially chilling to viewers old enough to hear their joints crack.

Mitchell delivers a strong turn as the spunky heroine, effectively conveying both her character's physical strength and emotional vulnerability. And comedian Nick Thune has some good moments as a friendly ambulance driver who can relate to Megan's addiction issues. But their efforts are not enough to make this hopelessly derivative horror film anything other than forgettable.

Production companies: Broken Road Productions, Screen Gems
Distributor: Screen Gems
Cast: Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson, Nick Thune, Louis Herthum, Stana Katic, Max McNamara, Jacob Ming-Trent, James A. Watson, Jr.
Director: Diederik van Rooijen
Screenwriter: Brian Sieve
Producers: Tod Garner, Sean Robbins
Executive producer: Glenn S. Gainor
Director of photography: Lennert Hillege
Production designer: Paula Loos|
Editors: Stanley Kolk, Jake York
Composer: John Frizzell|
Costume designer: Deborah Newhall
Casting: Nancy Nayor

Rated R, 85 minutes