Film Review: The Possession of Hannah Grace

Squandered Potential at Every Turn

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A novel premise, chilling atmosphere, and some of the gnarliest and creepiest practical effects in recent memory give rise to...one of the most disappointing horror films of the year. The Possession of Hannah Grace is a colorless, charm-less slog that is content in its laziness, a crime much worse than being a bad movie. Minor spoilers ahead...

As a self-proclaimed horror fan, I’m always looking for the next great scare; however, I have to admit that it isn’t that easy to make my skin crawl or my bones jump. Maybe it’s my lizard brain’s ability to instantly discern fantasy from reality, or maybe it’s because of the ice water in my veins, but being scared doesn’t come easily to me. But there is one exception: more than any ghost, ghoulie, or demon, mangled body horror and the disfigured dead never fail to give me the willies. Zelda from Pet Sematary, Katie from The Ring, and poor Alice Palmer from Lake Mungo - while their maladies and deaths may be outlandish and unrealistic, the grotesque husks they leave behind always seem at least reality-adjacent and therefore that much more terrifying. This brings us to The Possession of Hannah Grace, a horror film that, on paper, has everything going for it: an interesting premise, an able cast, and some really fantastic makeup and creature effects. Unfortunately, however, on paper is where its potential stays, ultimately giving us a horror film that can’t even be watched ironically, destined to be forgotten as soon as the credits roll.

The film begins promisingly enough with the botched exorcism of the titular Hannah Grace (Kirby Johnson), in which a parade of exorcism tropes is subverted when she is suddenly and mercifully smothered to death by her despondent father. It’s a surprisingly brutal open that seemingly sets up a fun and unique premise - a sequel of sorts that shows what happens in the aftermath of failed exorcisms in all those demonic possession movies. The majority of the film takes place in the morgue where Hannah’s body is delivered, where ex-cop Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell, Pretty Little Liars) is working as the graveyard shift attendant along with her sponsor Lisa (Stana Katic, Absentia, Castle), a nurse who works at the hospital. Struggling with sobriety and barely 60 days back on the wagon, Megan’s fresh start at the hospital takes a turn for the worse when the supernatural starts to creep in along with Hannah Grace’s mangled corpse.

Possession’s initial slow creep is actually quite effective, building up dread and tension with subtle scares and creepy visual cues thanks to some great silent acting from Kirby Johnson; tiny movements, blinking eyes, and shallow breaths from Hannah’s mutilated body lend themselves to a covertly horrifying atmosphere. However, after this promising setup and establishment of a genuinely unsettling mood, the film loses patience with itself and the covert quickly becomes the painfully overt. What could have been an impactful character study in genre horror instead devolves into a cheap scare machine, churning out an endless train of jump-scares that elicit eye-rolls rather than spine-chills. The barely-there plot moves forward at a too-brisk pace, ditching its promising allegory on depression, anxiety, and sobriety faster than a spider walk down the stairs; focusing instead on generic frights and a vanilla body count. Shay Mitchell, Stana Katic, and Grey Damon are all fine actors, but the script by Brian Sieve is a rudimentary slog that leaves all nuance and measured storytelling on the table - the film has all the personality of a student VFX reel. And although Kirby Johnson does some fantastic work at the start of the film with her gruesome contortions and frightening face acting, the later developments turn her into a boring and generic superhuman threat, complete with random and ludicrous superpowers that manifest only when the plot deems it convenient.

It’s also impossible to talk about The Possession of Hannah Grace without mentioning its atrocious editing. Jarring cuts, mismatched transitions, and sloppy pacing plague the film, especially in its muddled and narratively confused third act. Scenes suddenly jump from one to another without rhyme nor reason, and it’s not uncommon to think that whole scenes are just missing from the reel. It’s worth noting that the entire movie was filmed on the incredibly cheap consumer-level Sony A7S II, which boasts beautiful depth of field and professional-level low-light performance. This actually isn’t a knock against the film, since Possession is actually quite gorgeous to look at. Instead, this is a great example of what affordable filmmaking technology is capable of today - it’s just unfortunate that the haphazard editing and poor pacing completely undermines the camera showcase and only cheapens the final product.

Horror typically gets cut a lot of slack, with fans and critics saying a lot of the time “it’s just a horror movie,” or “it’s pretty good for a horror flick.” However, the modern era of the genre has been producing films that are not only great horror films, but great films, period. Recent gems like The Witch, It Follows, and Hereditary have elevated the category to such a degree that lazy and cheap can no longer pass muster. Horror can inspire, frighten, provoke, and thrill like any other genre, as long as it’s not The Possession of Hannah Grace. Do yourself a favor and skip this one, I can guarantee that there are hidden gems you haven’t seen yet that are a better alternative.

GRADE: C-