I picked up Grace: The Possession, Jeff Chan’s 2014 directorial debut, solely on the strength of its premise: a demonic possession movie shot entirely in the first person. While such a stylistic choice raises all sorts of questions about metatextuality and audience complicity and all that rot, my main interest in the movie was the question of whose perspective the camera would follow. Would it be linked to the demon, casting the audience as an intruder from outside the world of the film who usurps the will of a character to cause mischief, or would the camera link us to the protagonist, an observer unable to affect the chaos swirling around them?
As it turns out, Grace: The Possession doesn’t quite figure out an answer to this question.
On the surface it seems clear cut. From the first frame, the camera plops us into the perspective of the demon, swirling around a hospital room as Mary Hill (Alexia Fast) dies giving birth to Grace, the film’s eventual protagonist. Eighteen years later, the demon returns to pop into Grace’s (Alexia Fast, again) head as she moves into her dorm at her new university. Grace herself is a very withdrawn young woman, the victim of her grandmother’s (Lin Shaye from the Insidious movies) psychological abuse and Catholic dogma. Naturally university is a culture shock for Grace, even without added nuisance of demonic possession. The movie does lay the middle-class hedonism on a little thick, and for a while it looks like the movie is going to become Sexy Teen Demonic Murder Party V: His Will Be Done. However, after Grace’s first major hallucination lands her in the hospital, the movie shifts gears dramatically. Grandma Helen pulls Grace out of university and drags her back home, all the better to torment her. From here on out the movie basically becomes Carrie, with Grace slowly discovering the truth behind her birth while being ground down by both her grandmother and her own dark passenger.
All in all, there’s a lot in this movie that’s been done before. That in itself is not a bad thing with a movie built on a gimmick, but it does leave a lot riding on the strength of the gimmick. Unfortunately, Grace: The Possession doesn’t quite pull it off. The problem, put simply, is how to characterize an invisible character whose viewpoint is attached to that of another character. It’s a problem that a video game could handle easily, but is a bit trickier to manage in a film. There are solutions, of course. Having the demon offer commentary through narration would be a crude but simple way to handle it. A more elegant, albeit expensive, solution would be to have the demonic perspective “float” around the character, expressing itself silently by focusing on different areas in the scene while the main action is occurring.
The purpose of these solutions is to avoid the problem Grace: The Possession has, where the audience focuses and identifies far more with Grace than the demon. Grace is, after all, the one moving around and talking all the time, and when the demon does manifest itself, it does so through hallucinations that are as alien to us as to her. Given how the demon’s perspective was explicitly linked with our own in the beginning of the movie, it seems odd that the movie would choose a perspective that would then alienate it from us. As I was watching the movie, I kept constructing a “character” for the demon as an alien being sympathetic to Grace’s plight, which continually got trashed whenever the demon threw a hallucination at her. The lack of characterization for the demon also raises the problem of making it unclear just what is happening to Grace. For most of the movie, it’s even odds that Grace is being haunted by her mother or undergoing a schizophrenic breakdown, and the truth of the matter is only confirmed in the final fifteen minutes when the film finally goes full Exorcist.
And yet, while I don’t think Grace: The Possession succeeded as a formal experiment, I rather liked some bits of it. Alexia Fast’s Grace is inherently sympathetic as a young woman who got a bad hand in life and is struggling to stay afloat as her circumstances drag her down. The first-person perspective works wonderfully to heighten Grace’s isolation: we’re always seeing her watch and talk to other people rather than interact as one of a group, and her viewpoint shifts away from other people as she nervously picks at the hem of her dress. The final parts of the movie when Grace goes full demon are goofy as hell, but she does get one genuinely funny one-liner. While I’m not going to spoil the ending, I will say it is surprisingly ambivalent. While it is a bad outcome, objectively speaking, it’s not entirely clear that what came before was any better.
Once again, another movie worth at least one watch.