WARNING: The following article contains minor spoilers for The Possession of Hannah Grace, in theaters now.
Hollywood's fixation with attempting to demonstrate how scary a possessed young woman can be continues with The Possession of Hannah Grace. When Hannah's corpse arrives at the morgue following a botched exorcism, the dead body is reanimated by the demon lurking within.
While director Diederik Van Rooijen earns points for inventiveness, the movie needed more than a cool concept to succeed. In the end, it's formulaic story that serves as a stark reminder why the industry hasn't gotten a possession movie right since The Exorcist.
Based on William Peter Blatty's novel, the 1973 horror classic remains, after 45 years, the scariest film of all time. It's the gold standard for the demonic-possession subgenre, but what makes it so good is something its successors, and imitators, overlook: the importance of substance over style. Now, The Exorcist did have a novel hook for the time, as it was inspired by a supposedly true story, and was groundbreaking in terms of the shock it delivered. Fans actually ran out of the theater, with some even passing out in the lobby, as Linda Blair's 12-year-old Regan MacNeil cursed, spewed pea soup and rotated her head.
But what built up that story was its lead. Viewers felt a connection to the young, innocent Regan because they came to know her before she became possessed. So many modern films in the subgenre fast-forward past crucial elements establishing who the victim is, simply so speed the audience to the cheap jump-scares and pricey visual effects. Hannah Grace is a prime example of that problem, as we never learn who Hannah was before the possession, making it difficult to form any sort of connection to her or her plight.
By contrast, Regan tugged at our heartstrings as she dipped in and out of possession. The Exorcism of Emily Rose tried to do the same with its title character, but again, it felt rushed and very much like a popcorn flick. The Exorcist, however, accomplish that connection even when Jason Miller's Father Damien Karras becomes possessed after trying to save Regan, and draws sympathy because we witnesses his struggles surrounding faith and family.
The Rite fell flat when it tried to copy that with Anthony Hopkins' Father Lucas Trevant, because we never got to know him as a flawed man and priest; there was no empathy. And that's crucial in possession movie: We have to empathize with the victims and those fighting against the demon. Hannah Grace barely does that for its protagonist Megan, who's merely painted as an addict who needs to destroy the reanimated corpse of Hannah.
Horror films have tried again to replicate The Exorcist's formula, something even its own, lesser sequels and prequels couldn't accomplish. The 2016 television series did get it right, however, in following the story of an older Regan. But that proves the point that a successful possession story requires time to develop; there are few successful shortcuts.
What also helped The Exorcist also was its cast, with Ellen Burstyn as Regan's mother, Chris, and Max von Sydow as Father Lankester Merrin. We understood their grief, one from losing a daughter, and the other, from his battle for the souls of mankind. But their performances were so genuine that they could convince us they believed the devil was taking control of a young girl. It felt at times like a documentary. New films often lack these kinds of actors who genuinely seem invested in the role; for example, Hopkins was clearly phoning it in for The Rite.
When the core cast is believable, the scares feel organic. It doesn't matter if they're cheap gimmicks at that point, because audiences will be so invested in the characters, that whatever happens to them will have an emotional impact. The scares can be rough, raw, grainy -- whatever -- because, as The Exorcist showed, whether it's the ridiculous bile-spewing or the terrifying spider-walk down the stairs, people will buy in.
And that's the magic of that film: It didn't care what anyone thought; it actually felt indie. Now, the polish Hollywood is trying to put on all these possession movies -- to make them trendy, in hope of landing on the next Conjuring franchise -- that it dilutes the horror within.
In theaters now, director Diederik Van Rooijen's The Possession of Hannah Grace stars Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson, Louis Herthum, James A. Watson and Stana Katic.