The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018)
Director: Diederik Van Rooljen
Starring: Shay Mitchell (Megan Reed), Kirby Johnson (Hannah Grace), Grey Damon (Andrew Kurtz), and Nick Thune (Randy)
Whether you grew up in the 70s and 80s, or remember the more recent spate of demonically-driven films, exorcism and possession have long been hallmarks of the horror genre. The Possession of Hannah Grace follows in the best of these, with tense camera shots, strong use of sound, and subtle acting to conjure a pervasive sense of dread. But it’s not just fear of demons that drives this film, but rather the dread of existential nihilism and the reality that in the world our characters occupy, people are vulnerable, isolated, and easily replaceable.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Former police detective Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell) is a recovering addict, but her addiction is caused by the deep conflict she feels following a traumatic incident on patrol. There’s an unspoken problem of dealing with PTSD and offering meaningful support for people recovering from violent trauma, then recovering from the addictions they take up to help cope with that trauma. This is important because Reed is not a shrinking violet when it comes to the horrors around her. She can handle herself, and her training comes in handy multiple times. However, her world is one in which people are not valued. She takes the night shift job at the hospital morgue because she desperately needs to prove herself, but she also picks up the job following a line of former employees who couldn’t cut it. She’s constantly told the job is difficult, and through her isolation meets others who also shoulder difficult jobs under the radar. The hospital itself has a bare-bones staff during the graveyard shift, a subtle nod to the budget cuts that leave many companies relying on a handful of employees to perform the jobs of many others. There are only two security guards on duty for the whole hospital. There is only one person on duty at the morgue. When an EMT calls out sick, his partner is forced to complete the strenuous job alone.
This pervasive sense of isolation works well with the plot. Hannah Grace, the possessed woman who dies in the film’s opening when her father smothers her to death to end her suffering, suffered from depression and anxiety when she was alive and this, her father later tells Megan, “broke her down.” We see this mirrored in the other victims Hannah picks off, their isolation making them vulnerable, their absence scarcely missed. We know that the hospital will just employ someone new to take their place. People are disposable. It’s a grim view, and this is what helps make the film work so well. If Megan vanishes, everyone will blame her drug problem even if she’s been clean for weeks or months.
In terms of cinematography, the film makes many homages to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1973) as expected, but also to Japanese horror influences like Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in the bleak, washed out atmosphere, isolation, and creeping despair. Megan bounces a rubber ball fashioned of rubber bands, hitting it against the wall and catching it in a move reminiscent of Jack Torrance in the Shining, the sound echoing off the wall in the empty corridors like gunfire. The subtle sounds of banging or shifting objects, the cracking of Hannah’s bones as she moves, all of this makes the audio experience just as terrifying and bleak as the visual. Tense scene after tense scene build on each other as Shay Mitchell’s Megan struggles with herself and the very real danger of the possessed body of Hannah Grace. Kirby Johnson, who portrays Hannah Grace, is able to contort her face and body so much that you’ll believe she’s harboring a demon. The atmosphere is creepy, and if we’ve seen some of it before then we can forgive it – it’s a demon possession movie, after all, but this one actually has something to say. The characters are likeable, and we feel bad when events turn dire. Megan in particular stands out – her predicament as a casualty of poor mental health care and her willingness to take any job necessary to survive resonates in today’s millennial reality. In the end, the film finishes with a quiet moment of Megan sitting, the trouble overcome, bouncing a rubber ball, a corpse in the background as police rush in to investigate. And how else should she be? After all, she needs this job.
Kelley M. Frank