Written and Directed by: The Vicious Brothers
Starring: Sean Rogerson, Juan Riedinger and Ashleigh Gryzko
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
They were searching for proof... they found it.
We’re probably one or two more found footage movies away from one of those unholy Friedberg & Seltzer parodies (which will no doubt be called Found Footage Movie to pander to the lowest common denominator). To ensure that we will in fact get to that ignominious shark-jumping point, here’s another one--Grave Encounters, a Canadian production with an obvious entry point: a ghost hunting show (in the vein of, you know, Ghost Hunters) gone horribly wrong when its crew enters a haunted asylum, never to be heard from again.
Oh, but there is footage left behind, and it lands in the lap of the show’s producer, who introduces it, insisting that it’s all real and that we’re seeing the raw footage that never aired. The show in question is Grave Encounters, hosted by Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), whose crew visits reportedly haunted locations in hopes of capturing the phenomenon on camera. Their latest haunt is an old asylum in Maryland with a bloody history involving one of its lobotomy-happy doctors that met a grisly end when his patients revolted. Until this point, Lance and his crew have never captured definitive proof of the paranormal, but that changes pretty quickly once they get locked inside overnight.
Grave Encounters is a little belabored in the early-going, if only because it all feels so familiar and derivative; I sometimes hate cases like this because I have to wonder how much more appealing it would be if it weren’t coming after a deluge of similar films. At any rate, its mythology-building is solid enough, relying on the typical dark, sordid history tropes as the crew scours the old asylum, stumbling upon rooms and bathtubs where people once committed suicide. The film is much more interested in building this creepy ambiance more so than establishing its characters, which are the usual sort--a cute girl, some goofy tech guys, a dime store psychic medium (or at least a guy who is playing one on TV), etc. Lance would be the most interesting here since he’s revealed to actually be a fraud early on, as he’s prone to paying off asylum workers to play up the place’s ghastly history regardless of whether they’ve had an experience or not.
Even a plotline that would see Lance being forced to confront his skepticism would probably have recalled The Last Exorcism, but it’d still be preferable to how Grave Encounters just sort of deteriorates into a torrent of scares that hits all of the expected found footage beats and images: night-vision raccoon eyes, haunted house parlor tricks, and a bunch of people inserting the word “fuck” into every sentence as they lose it. When it comes to scares, Grave Encounters finds some good ones; in fact, this might be the first found footage movie to best approximate the experience of a carnival haunted house. Once it gets going, there’s something seemingly popping out from behind every corner; it all starts off subtly, of course, with doors slamming on their own and a wheel chair slowly creaking down a hallway. Before long, crew members are disappearing and the activity becomes even more pronounced; if you’re the type that thinks most found footage movies rely too much on the unseen and let your imagination do too much of the work, Grave Encounters is probably for you.
It reveals its hand early and often, and almost becomes a bit tedious before the film finds its lifeline in a pretty cool turn of events about midway through, when the group discovers that they can’t escape--literally. They’ve set it up to where the asylum caretaker will return at 6am, which comes and goes without incident; when they break the front door down, they discover a hallway that shouldn’t be there. Even more unnerving is the discovery that it’s well past daybreak, yet it remains pitch-black outside, so they’ve found themselves trapped in this labyrinthine purgatory, an understated notion that’s far more disturbing than the myriad jumps and shocks thrown the audience’s way. That’s where the film eventually picks back up and end with, which is just as well; I think it may have been more effective to nip and tuck a few of the scares and reorder things so the film ends with the characters slowly resigning themselves to being trapped in this nether-world dimension, their souls trapped on the other side for all of eternity. For whatever reason, that sort of stuff seems far more despairing and stomach-buckling than how these type of movies usually end.
Grave Encounters isn’t bad as far as found footage movies go; the worst I can say about it is that it’s maybe a little exhausting and repetitive in its scares and conflicts (for example, these movies always boil down to at least one character making a zoomed-in confession to the camera--this one has 2 or 3). Most importantly, it’s accessible enough--we all know how these ghost hunting shows work, plus we’ve all heard stories of spooky haunts like this asylum before. The production is obviously lo-fi, but does introduce a multi-camera set-up that allows for more coverage and more dynamic action, so it’s not an entirely handheld experience. Grave Encounters exhibits a lot of promise from its directing duo who have dubbed themselves The Vicious Brothers (who aren’t actually brothers, but have made a rather vicious film, so they earn the name); they (mostly) get how to chart out a haunted house film, only stumbling when they begin to run out of gas a bit. Tribeca Film picked their film up for distribution and released it on DVD back in October, but it’s now conveniently available for streaming on Netflix. This one should find its way into your instant queue if you haven’t burned yourself out on watching the videotaped exploits of people skulking around dark buildings. Rent it!
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