Monday, July 30, 2012

Ghosthunters Never Learn

In perfect honesty, I didn’t really want to like Grave Encounters. These last few years have shown me more found footage haunted horror than I was ever hoping to see, a fact that I worry sometimes puts me in such a pessimistic place when watching genuinely good independent films (Skew and The Feed among them). But since so many people with respectable opinions had been recommending The Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters and the siren of Instant Watch began to sing, it was time to drink that half full glass and try it out.

Quick Plot: A talking head interview has a reality TV producer (of such fare as Tornado Chasers) setting up the footage we are about to see. According to him, some years before the advent of Ghost Hunters, Lance Preston and his team had been working on a reality show called "Grave Encounters." Upon their sixth episode set in the vacant Collingwood Mental Institution, bad things happened…all of which was caught on video for our hungry eyes to see.

We switch point of views to that of the production team’s cameras. Wielding the equipment is cameraman T.C. (a very natural Merwin Mondesir), "occult specialist" Sasha, tech guy Matt, and faux medium Houston. Leading the team is Lance, the typical tool you’d find on these kinds of shows. Always camera-ready, Sean Rogerson’s Lance captures the perfect essence of a reality show host: well-spoken, falsely earnest, and at his heart, a true hack.

The first twenty minutes or so of Grave Encounters is spent exploring the quite creepy abandoned asylum, with town historians and caretakers providing its dark backstory. Like its predecessor Session 9, the film is able to generate plenty of eeriness from peeling paint and overturned gurneys. Thankfully, it also has a sense of humor.

See, despite some method acting and great camera angles, “Grave Encounters” (the show within the movie Grave Encounters) ain’t exactly real. Just as the intense preparation for a night in the asylum is ramping up to eye-rolling levels of earnestness, Lance & Co. reveal that deep down, most of the scares they capture are manufactured. Observe a very funny interview with a quiet new-on-the-job gardener who after a second take and $20 bill, can tell you ALL about the haunting of Collingwood based on, um, his ten-year career there.

Of course, once the sun sets and the doors are locked, “Grave Encounters” the TV show gets exactly what is always wanted: genuine ghosts.

I won’t spoil any more of this film, which is a surprisingly great way to spend 90 minutes of your streaming time. As a fairly vocal opponent of found footage horror, I had next to no expectations that I would actually like Grave Encounters. And yet, once doors started to close, furniture started to float and food went rotten, I was 100% on board with following the crew. Yes, some of the more blatant scares feel a tad derivative of other films, but most actually work, especially since each puts our characters through such a terrible limbo-like hell. The film starts out with tongue in cheek; it ends with one on a dirty hospital floor.

High Notes
Lots of credit goes to the whole cast for being both natural in front of the (very close) cameras but still establishing their characters without anything forced. We never learn much about their personal lives, but each member of the team rings true and believable

Low Notes
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: naming characters after famous figures in and behind horror only works when it’s not obvious. Unless there really was a Dr. Arthur FRIEDKEN who performed lobotomies in the ‘60s…

Lessons Learned
With slow motion and music behind it, everything’s creepy

Ghosts generally don’t respond when you ask “Who’s there?”

When camping out in an abandoned mental asylum, consider packing Twinkies

What a refreshingly pleasant surprise Grave Encounters turned out to be. Sure, I could have used a little less shaky night-cam footage, but this is a film that is incredibly well-crafted and paced, with a great unique touch in terms of humor and scares. It’s a definite recommend and makes me anxious to see what The Vicious Brothers do next. Especially if it means changing their name. Because as much as I liked this film, I do not like typing “The Vicious Brothers.”

Yeah, I went there.


  1. I too was pleasantly surprised by GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, not least for Sean Rogerson's dead-on channeling of "Ghost Adventures" host Zak Bagans, whose over-earnest, Orson Welles-via-Pauly Shore delivery never fails to make me chuckle. And best of all, unlike on "Ghost Adventures," in GRAVE ENCOUNTERS stuff actually *happens.* :)

    With regard to horror figures as name banks for movie characters, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. I learned that some years ago the president of the California Medical Association was none other than one Dr. Richard S. FRANKENSTEIN! I'm sure all of his colleagues where nothing but professional when it came to his name. ;)

  2. HMMMM. Then again, I feel like anyone born with the last name Frankenstein has no other real choice than to go into the medical field. Sort of like how there's a lot of ornithologists with the last name "Bird." EMBRACE YOUR DESTINY, that's what I always say.

  3. I enjoyed this one a lot too. I'd heard nothing about it when I spotted it on streaming and gave it a shot because it sounded so bad it might be fun... and then when I found it actually starting to get creepy, and actually scary... I was so surprised.
    I could have done with fewer FX shots of ghosts... or a bit more subtlety to them at least... but that's a very minor complaint when I think of how my brain panicked when they smashed open the front doors...

  4. True, the CGI scares were messy. The worst thing is that all the main 'surprises' are totally spoiled by the trailer which, thankfully, I didn't watch beforehand!

  5. I fapped a little to the ending.

  6. Huh. I guess we all have our thing. Different strokes (literally) for different folks...

  7. Ugh. I couldn't stand it. Mainly because the film hinged upon the fact that these shysters, when the shit hit the fan, would have to express real and genuine fear. And when they did, I didn't buy it. I could care less what happened to them. And the CGI was enough to take me out of it.

  8. I can see your point but while watching, everything just clicked for me. Oddly enough, once I knew the crew members were phonies, I found myself enjoying their performances far more.

  9. I too came to this without really knowing anything about it - I think the only I thing I read about it was Christine's review over at Paracinema. I really enjoyed it - loved the central premise and nods to dodgy paranormal investigation TV shows and was completely thrown when it took a few unexpected turns about halfway through. I'll say no more, except I enjoyed your review and hope you're well, Emily! :)

  10. Good to hear from you James! And glad to see so many film fans enjoyed Grave Encounters. I'm still so shocked at how many genuinely GOOD found footage style horror indies are still circulating. I was definitely wrong to write the style off so quickly.

  11. This is one of the good ones.. i would also recommend.. The tunnel and the soon to be released V/H/S which incorporates skype into the mix, and is an anthology to boot.

  12. The Tunnel has been on my radar. And I'm REALLY excited for V/H/S based on the names involved. Although I keep getting it confused with The ABCs of Horror, which is also an upcoming anthology with a bunch of great directors doing segments.

  13. I liked tunnel even more than grave encounters. VHS is really good also, although the framing story and 1 or 2 of the segments are a bit weak (there are 5 segments). The other 3 parts are really fantastic though. Paranormal activity 4 is on the way also... woohoo

  14. Yay for good movies, even if the camerawork leads to nausea!

  15. I didn't see this until I think sometime in December but I'm glad I did.

    Although I've never personally had a beef with found footage horror, I can understand the apathy towards it.

    I'm still a sucker for a good scare and Grave Encounters provided that AND allowing me to still sleep at night.

    Everything you said was right now. Nothing else to add.