‘The Possession of Hannah Grace’ never fully takes hold on screen

The Sun Herald - - Marque - BY KATIE WALSH

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 it­self, 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 Grace’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).

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 Grace has a bit more agency than 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.

CLAIRE FOLGER Sony Pic­tures

Me­gan (Shay Mitchell) re­al­izes that some­thing is not right in Hannah Grace’s ca­daver drawer in “The Poses­sion of Hannah Grace.”

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