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Movie Review: “THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE” is less deviltry than body horror

Friday, November 30, 2018 | Review

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Starring Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon and Kirby Johnson
Directed by Diederik Van Rooijen
Written by Brian Sieve
Screen Gems

The Screen Gems team probably thought they were doing this movie (shot two years ago under the title CADAVER) a box-office favor by retitling it to make it seem like an exorcism flick. But they’ve actually done the film a disservice, as it is something very different, and a little better than one might expect, after the first five minutes.

This opener features the purging of a demon from the eponymous teenage girl (Kirby Johnson) with all the imagery and dialogue one might expect from such a setpiece, which might have seasoned horror fans rolling their eyes (if not twisting their heads around) at the familiarity. From there, the actual storyline centers on Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell from PRETTY LITTLE LIARS) as she begins her job as an “intake assistant” at fictitious Boston Metro Hospital. That means she’s the one who admits and photographs bodies that arrive at the morgue, and she’s working the graveyard shift, which means she does it all by herself. You’d think a major metropolitan hospital would have more than one person staffing the morgue overnight, but you can overlook that here since it sets Megan up to experience one terrible night often alone.

Megan comes with the obligatory troubled backstory—she is an ex-police officer who lost a partner and is recovering from a pill/booze addiction and her cop boyfriend Andrew (Grey Damon) just moved out on her—though she insists while being given a tour of her new workplace, “There were issues, but I’m much better now.” She also says, “When you die, you die, end of story,” and of course we know both statements will be disproven as the film goes on. Before that happens, Dutch director Diederik Van Rooijen, making his American film debut, uses the stillness and intrinsic unease of the setting to build up anticipatory tension before the body of Hannah Grace is wheeled in.

Hannah arrives looking much the worse for wear, bearing gaping slash wounds and awful burns (excellent prosthetic work by Canadian makeup maestro Adrien Morot) suggesting someone had a vested interest in assuring she was dead. But it appears that she isn’t, not completely; first her morgue drawer won’t stay closed, and then she starts lurking around and jumping through the frame while Megan isn’t looking. Even as Megan clues into the fact that something odd is going on, she’s determined to stay the course, though she does seek help (credit screenwriter Brian Sieve for eschewing the potential “There’s no cell service down here!” gambit) from Andrew, her AA sponsor/fellow doctor Lisa (CASTLE’s Stana Katic), a friendly ambulance driver (Nick Thune) and a goofball security guard (Max McNamara).

The visitors tend to run afoul of Hannah’s wrath, though the body-count stuff actually makes up the less effective portions of THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE, in part since the maneuvering of the victims-to-be into harm’s way is somewhat contrived. The film is at its best when it’s just Megan, nicely played by Mitchell, dealing with her isolated situation and Hannah’s errant cadaver, amidst concrete-brutalist morgue settings by production designer Paula Loos that look unpleasant to hang out in even without the dead bodies—and one reanimated one—around. Dancer/contortionist Johnson brings a sense of uncanny, painful movement to Hannah that in many scenes works because it doesn’t need or receive CGI enhancement.

Hannah’s tortured creepy-crawling has antecedents in Regan’s “spider-walk” from THE EXORCIST and Kayako in JU-ON, though it’s not the delayed movie’s fault that her method of murder plays very much like one seen in this year’s SUSPIRIA remake. POSSESSION was also in the works before the release of the similarly themed THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE, and while that one remains the prime cut of modern morgue-set horror, POSSESSION has enough going for it to deserve better than being awkwardly sold as part of another subgenre.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.