There are a few jumps and bumps, but there’s no real sense of dread or unease or questioning. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.
Perfunctory B-movie “The Possession of Hannah Grace” isn’t exactly an earth-shattering entry into the well-worn genre that is the exorcism movie. It doesn’t so much as invite attention to itself as it does to the genre, allowing viewers to ponder the ways in which it does or does not hew to convention, and what that might mean for the state of the exorcism movie some 45 years after Linda Blair puked pea soup all over our collective frontal lobes in “The Exorcist.”
Set in an environment of flickering fluorescent lights and pockmarked poured concrete, “The Possession of Hannah Grace” isn’t really about the possession, nor is it even about Hannah Grace. The film, rather, centers on Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell), a newbie overnight intake assistant at the Boston Metro Hospital morgue whose night is rocked by the arrival of Hannah’s corpse.
A prologue offers the kind of exorcism content we’re familiar with: heavy Catholic iconography, chanting priests, a nubile female body writhing and lashed to a bed. Which is why the most interesting thing about the film, written by Brian Sieve and directed by Diederik Van Rooijen, is it abandons all that gothic familiarity for a night at the morgue. Instead of a patriarchal priest compelling demons to get out, a young woman, riddled with PTSD and clinging to 60 days of sobriety, is just trying to get someone to believe her that something’s not right with this body.
One has to wonder just why exorcism films proliferate in the way they do. It’s the landmark success of “The Exorcist,” yes, but there’s something else that tickles our collective unconscious: the fetishism and ritual, the bondage, the young female bodies, seemingly so permeable, so changing, so susceptible to invasion by demons that sound like black-metal frontmen. Anyone who denies the sexual undercurrent here has to answer why there are no exorcism films where young men are possessed (or older women, for that matter).
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So that’s why when “The Possession of Hannah Grace” zigs where it might historically zag, landing us in the hands of the “smart, resourceful” but down-on-her-luck Megan, in a refrigerated, automated meat locker, we pay attention. Hannah has a bit more agency than “The Exorcist’s” Regan MacNeil, and Kirby Johnson gives a wonderfully physically embodied performance as the corpse who won’t stay still.
At one point, someone wonders to Megan, “Why hasn’t she killed you?” It’s an apt question. She’s a mentally unstable young woman, struggling with addiction and anxiety and trauma — ripe for possession. But it seems in Megan, Hannah and whatever is inside Hannah (it’s never clear) has met its match, and that’s the place where we should dive further. It’s a bit of a shame the film never draws that out with any clarity.
But for all the pondering “The Possession of Hannah Grace” inspires, it’s also true that at a quick 85 minutes, it still manages to feel tedious at times. The dour environment doesn’t help, the humor doesn’t pop and, disappointingly, the scares just don’t land. There are a few jumps and bumps, but there’s no real sense of dread or unease or questioning. We simply watch the events unfold with a full understanding of what’s going on. It’s unfortunate that “The Possession of Hannah Grace” just never fully takes hold.
★★ “The Possession of Hannah Grace,” with Shay Mitchell, Kirby Johnson. Directed by Diederik Van Rooijen, from a screenplay by Brian Sieve. 85 minutes. Rated R for gruesome images and terror throughout. Opens Nov. 30 at multiple theaters.