REVIEW: Grave Encounters
Produced by: Twin Engine Films, Digital Interference Productions, Shawn Angelski, Michael Karlin
Written by: The Vicious Brothers
Edited by: The Vicious Brothers
Cinematography by: Tony Mirza
Music by: Quynne Craddock
Starring: Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko, Mackenzie Gray, Juan Riedinger, Merwin Mondesir, Matthew K. McBride, Ben Wilkinson
I didn’t really count on doing a found footage film this year, but my friend offered this up as a solid horror film the other day, and, in return I said I’d do a review of it. For the record, this is the same guy who suggested I watch the 1991 Sylvester Stallone movie Oscar, the also horrific Thomas and the Magical Railroad (which was his joke suggestion last year for a horror movie review), and the unexpected suggestion of Albert Nobbs. If anything, though I haven’t very much always enjoyed his suggestions, they have definitely given my reviews more variety, and so I think I’ll give him a pass on this cliché subgenre recommendation – and if he takes issue with my condescending tone here regarding his movie suggestions and taste, then he totally knows it’s intentional… and totally sincere. t(-.-t) to you and your suggestions, dude. I had heard of the film before, but it was only in passing on various websites’ comments sections and such. It also popped up recently on Netflix’s streaming service recommendations for me, so when he watched it and then made the recommendation himself, I figured it was just meant to be.
Like with all found footage films, this one comes up with a bit of backstory to go with it that attempts to place its remarkable events within the context of our world. Here, an interview with a television producer explains to the audience that the footage we are about to see is undoctored footage filmed by the crew of a paranormal “investigation” reality show just before they went missing within what was rumored to be a haunted mental institution.
Right away, Grave Encounters (so named after the fictional TV series within the movie) starts off on shaky feet by explaining way too much to its own audience. We’ve pretty much all seen these types of films before, and even if you hadn’t, you pretty much still know the drill thanks to the premise being so ingrained in popular culture these days to the point where 3 years after this film’s release, they’re actually now making family-friendly flicks like Earth to Echo in the a style once reserved for just scary movies. So, yes, we did not need this introduction to let us know that, hey, this footage is, like, totally “real,” everyone, so take it seriously and be absorbed by the rawness of what you will see. Not to mention the fact that it seems to have affected the story in a way that made me feel completely disconnected with the actual characters going through the ordeal.
See, the basic premise isn’t bad, and the story is pretty darn simple, which is mostly to the film’s benefit since we’re also well aware of the concept of these cheap thrill reality shows. Here, the crew is planning to spend the night in the abandoned mental hospital and record any activity they experience through their ritualistic “scientific” experiments with the aid of a supposed supernatural expert. In so doing, however, this group of closet skeptics begin to encounter things that are beyond their expectations and ultimately come face to face with the true horrors of this cursed place.
Simple, right? The problem is that there’s very little that is surprising here. During the scenes early on where the crew is interviewing experts and people who actually worked there, all the film’s mysteries are laid out early on, and so there are no surprise reveals or anything by the end. What you see is what you get. And anyone expecting the level of characterization found in its obvious forebears, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, are going to be disappointed. The leads here are very much generic with no real descriptive personalities – they’re really more defined by their role on the show, which may be due to the trappings of the story, but you’d think that the filmmakers would have figured out some means of conveying their relationships further through the course of the film. B-roll or something?
If only the script allowed for their interactions with one another to develop them beyond just their working relationships and what we know about them in the first five minutes or so of being on screen. They’re pretty static characters, and beyond an obligatory slight attraction between the show’s host, Lance, and the token girl, Sasha, there’s not really much we’re able to grasp on to with these characters beyond their role in the show within the movie. Sure, we see them interview a few people at the rundown mental institution and bribe a landscaper into outright lying about his experiences with the paranormal, but that really says more about the nature of reality TV than the actual characters themselves, and even that seems beside the point of this movie’s existence since it’s not even setting out to satirize that tired topic. I mean, everything they set out to see turns out to be real, right?
So what is the point of the movie, if not a fascinating mythology or compelling characters? I guess that just leaves the scares, right? How does Grave Encounters fair?
In a word: Fair. It’s not like the film is breaking new ground here, and the fact that the characters are hard to care for means that any danger they’re in registers more like watching a nature documentary where a gazelle is being eaten by a lion than someone we care about suffering – in fact, you might just care more for the gazelle since it’s just so stupid and helpless. But what Grave Encounters does do well is atmosphere. Once the supernatural stuff starts, that’s when the movie finally starts getting a bit more fun. While a lot of the camera angles are a little too staged – Lance, in even the most dangerous situations, frequently makes sure that his camera is pointed in exactly the right direction, which I guess might be another dig at reality TV, but… eh – a lot of the non-CGI stuff works kind of like a magic trick. You know there’s a bunch of sleight of hand going on with the camera, and yet it’s pretty effective… you know, when it’s not using cheap CGI to enhance things in noticeable ways.
This movie certainly won’t gain any widespread recognition, though it’s apparently it generated enough of a following and earned enough money for a sequel. Its premise is interesting, but the film’s inability to move beyond that conceit and say anything interesting about its trappings has the effect of rendering its characters as flat as actual reality TV stars, even when they’re not playing to the camera. The movie pretty much spoils any sense of mystery right off the bat by showing all of its cards in the first 20 minutes. If you can get past that, however, it’s a decent enough approximation of what a neighborhood haunted house would feel like in movie form. Have a couple beers and watch it late at night, and you’re bound to get a bit of cheap entertainment out of this low budget, me-too horror flick.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5