Given the preposterously degraded state of the demonic possession movie, it doesn't take much at all for The Possession of Hannah Grace to distinguish itself. And to be fair, it doesn't do much at all, but it does it right at the start, and in so doing got on my good side so immediately that it never quite got stupid enough to dislodge itself.

As you perhaps know, if you are an habitué of of the possession movie, they all end the same way (after having generally started and middled the same way also): with an exorcism scene in which the possessed - likelier than not to be a skinny teen girl - writhes with hateful glee shining through her fucked-up eyes, as the holy man brought in to cast the demon back to Hell screams louder and louder, as people float into the air and things fly around and the lighting gets all nasty and the parent of the possessed one grimaces in pain as she hurls vulgar invective at the room. Well, The Possession of Hannah Grace just to happens to start with this scene, in which Hannah Grace (Kirby Johnson) manages to overpower a priest, and is only stopped when her sobbing father (Louis Herthum) suffocates her with a pillow. It is weirdly bracing. The scene's not particularly good - director Diederik Van Rooijen has a tendency throughout the movie of going for the loud, visually busy, and obvious, and the exorcism in Hannah Grace is all three of those things. Still, good on the movie, and screenwriter Brian Steve, for the blunt, no-bullshit vibe of this starting gesture. The movie puts the word "possession" right there in the title, sells itself as horror, and has interests that do not involve making us wonder what's going on. Honestly, the fact that the staging of the exorcism scene is so joylessly pro forma kind of adds to the sense that the filmmakers are more looking to remind us of who the whole exorcism genre works, and this utterly pedestrian opening is mostly just obligatory, before we can get to the good stuff.

And good stuff it is! The film has a killer hook: what happens if an undead body finds its way into a hospital morgue? The answer, among other things, is that it would scare the shit out of the morgue attendant, in this case Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell). Megan used to be a cop, till she froze in the line of duty and allowed her partner to be shot; that sent her into a depression that led to destructive self-medication, and now she's in rehab, freshly broken up with her cop boyfriend Andrew Kurtz (Grey Damon), and looking for a job that will give her no real opportunities to make stupid decisions about e.g. getting wasted every night. Her rehab buddy Lisa (Stana Katic) suggested working the night shift at the hospital, and so we arrive at the plot. On just Megan's second night, an EMT named Randy (Nick Thune) brings by a horribly mutilated, partially-burned corpse. We note immediately that this is Hannah Grace, and also that the creepy man in a hoodie who has been skulking around near the morgue loading dock is the father who attempted to kill her three months ago. He's also the one responsible for the apparent corpse's grotesque state, and he's looking to finish the job. Megan of course freaks out, but keeps her wits about her enough to get the cops to come over, thus taking care of the apparent madman once and for all. Of course, we know what  kind of movie this is, and so this apparent victory really just means that Megan is no alone in the morgue with an unkillable demon body.

First principles: morgues are terrific locations for horror movies, and it's a little stunning that there aren't more examples. I do believe that Hannah Grace offers more than just a good setting (certainly far more than its uniformly hostile reception by both critics and horror fans alike), though there's no doubt that the setting is what's best about it. Not just the morgue, either. A commanding majority of the film - easily 85% if not 90% - takes place in the hallways of the hospital basement where Megan now works, and while I have a hard time believing in the soaring ceilings we see, the sets otherwise just have the right feel. All punishing slabs of textured concrete, rising up into shadowy depths, the hallways (along with the morgue and crematorium) have a spooky feeling that doesn't scream "haunted house" nearly as strongly as it screams "lonely industrial space that was by no means designed for humans", and here at least, Van Rooijen and cinematographer Lennert Hillege remain sedate in the camera movement and quietly gloomy in the lighting. The film is surpassing good at capturing a deeply uncomfortable feeling, the feeling of being someone already prone to depression without the added bonuses of substance addiction and PTSD, and then being alone in a place that is inherently off-putting and creepy, plus it's unpleasantly quiet and it's really late at night.

Frankly, The Possession of Hannah Grace doesn't need the possession angle at all, and I don't half-wonder if it wouldn't be better without it. It's already creepy-crawly enough just from showing Megan's low-key distress, aided by a pleasingly unhurried pace - the film is a tidy 86 minutes, and does not rush them - and it would be a strong thriller without having to bring anything paranormal into it. On the other hand, Hannah's mangled body is a pretty fine bit of body horror, particularly thanks to the luminescent blue eyes that give Johnson a deeply unsettling, inhuman look even apart from her effectively vicious expressions of wanton hatred. And though the film has exactly one kind of scare it knows how to stage, it is often staged very well.

For a solid two-thirds, I was frankly digging on this altogether. It's trite, and the notion of a trauma survivor using the inconvenience of being a horror movie victim to help categorise and overcome that trauma has become lazy boilerplate, but Mitchell is good enough in the role to make even this very corny character arc feel like there's something real and honest beneath it. The important thing is that she never plays Megan as simply nervous or freaked out. We always see that this woman is an ex-cop, alert rather than jumpy, thoughtful rather than panicky. It's not great character drama, but for a horror movie that gives away most of the game in the title, it doesn't need to be: we just need a protagonist who feels grounded enough that we feel for her when the actual shit starts going down.

As any horror film will, this ends, and it ends poorly: the film devolves into a frenzy of killing as many people as possible, no matter how arbitrarily, nor how unclear it makes whatever rules guide demon Hannah's motivations and abilities. It also gets a real bad case of the jump scares, taking much of the impact away from the more atmospheric horror generated by the location. I would daresay it's even silly, which is bad fate for a moody film like this one, and the character themes grow increasingly hectoring and flat-footed as they grow more explicit. Still, let's say we write off the whole final third of the movie; factoring in the credits, that leaves something like 55 minutes of good atmosphere, interesting character beats, and a substantial amount of pleasure in watching "demon zombie fucks with a morgue attendant" play out more or less precisely the way you expect it to. That's about 50 more good minutes than most demonic possession movies are able to get up, and it leaves me feeling generously inclined towards this decidedly above-par example of the form.