Monday, March 26, 2012

Movie Review: Grave Encounters (2011)

Just after the first of this year I found myself fighting a head cold, and I ended up being home sick for a few days. For the duration I was more or less confined to the couch, which led to a Netflix marathon since I was too sapped of energy to do much of anything else. During those days I discovered an outrageous show called Ghost Adventures which is apparently a continuing series on the Travel Channel. The basic premise is that 3 guys who are paranormal investigators get locked up in a creepy location overnight with special equipment and try to provoke ghosts into appearing. Whether you believe in anything that takes place on the show is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned, because these guys are wildly entertaining. Normally in these documentary style television programs the host tends to be the voice of reason, and often projects a demeanor of professionalism. The GAC crew, particularly the leader Zak Bagans, wanders on the scene like they just drove in from the frat house. It makes for an unusual setup, and the folks they are interviewing often seem taken aback by their fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants modus operandi.

In their overnight investigations the trio employs a variety of equipment types, which measure everything from electromagnetic energy spikes to EVP monitors which capture spirit voices amidst white noise. If you allow yourself to go with it, the show is a lot of fun and pretty creepy at times. It only gets really hard to stomach when they push things too far with possible possessions and the like. The best aspect of the whole enterprise, and one which I hadn’t seen tried to the extreme it is in GA, is that Bagans and company actively insult the spirits, calling them cowards, losers, etc. Needless to say this is pretty over-the-top, and much more entertaining than watching a serious scientist monitor instruments. It also helps that they rely almost entirely on their night vision camera viewfinders to navigate their way through the pitch black environments, providing a chuckle or two when they trip over a misplaced piece of furniture now and then.

So to bring all of this to the business at hand, I recently discovered a related film that blew me away on a couple of fronts. The film is called Grave Encounters and is both a parody of Ghost Adventures, and an unbelievably scary thrill ride. The plot in a nutshell is that the crew of a Ghost Adventures style television show called Grave Encounters disappears while investigating an abandoned hospital. Their footage has been found by the network and is being revealed for the first time. So it’s your basic found footage setup a la Blair Witch and so many others. If you were scrolling through your Netflix queue and came across it, Grave Encounters would appear unremarkable. The cover image is unimpressive, and the description has the ring of some cheapo DTV title. Worse still it’s directed by a duo calling themselves The Vicious Brothers, which did not sit well with me. Brotherly director teams have a hit and miss track record in my experience, leaning more toward the miss side. Honestly after The Brothers Strause and their Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem, if you are any sibling duo other than Joel and Ethan Cohen, you’ll be working at a disadvantage to impress me.

Before going any further I’ll say this – if you don’t like found footage movies then Grave Encounters is not likely to change your mind on the subject. For myself, I think the found footage setup has been established as a legitimate category within the horror genre, and when done right I think these films are as scary as anything I’ve ever seen on film. In my mind what makes them so effective is how down-to-earth they are in terms of avoiding showy digital effects or big budget production values. Hollywood has forgotten how to make a truly scary A-list film (e.g. The Exorcist) and these found footage entries are about the best thing going as of late.

Grave Encounters is for roughly 75% of its running time an utterly brilliant movie. The first half hour or so is more or less setup, and is a masterful riff on Ghost Adventures. We are introduced to the footage by the show’s producer, who lets us know the footage has only been edited for time. After the brief intro we jump right into the footage which shows the Grave Encounters crew going through their pre-lockdown interviews with parties associated with the hospital. The crew is composed of 5 members instead of 3 as in Ghost Adventures, including a host, a psychic, and three camera crew members. As we see the raw footage of the host Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) going through his introduction and interviewing the experts on the hospital, we discover the show is a total sham. He encourages the interviewees to embellish their stories, sometimes going as far as paying them to make things up. Rogerson doesn’t do a straight impersonation of Bagans, but he nails the style of Bagans in a way that is absolutely hilarious if you’re familiar with Ghost Adventures (and honestly you would benefit from watching a couple of episodes before sitting down with this). He’s a charlatan with a cocky attitude, but drops hints that on a deeper level he believes in the supernatural. He just happens to place a higher premium on his ego than on the otherworldly.

The slow setup as the group tours the hospital may throw some off the case, but getting to know the characters pays off when things start to go crazy. The crew are convincing as real people, seeking a little glory while having a blast chasing ghosts they don’t actually believe in. The tour of the building also includes creepy foreshadowing for later (e.g. a window that likes to open on its own), and provides a sense of geography that allows one to identify with the crew’s anxiety when things start going haywire. I admire movies like this that take their time setting things up, because more often than not it pays off in the long run. The current trend in horror leans more toward instant gratification, eschewing subtlety in favor of gore and jump scares. Grave Encounters, again for 75% or its running time, nails an atmosphere of anticipatory dread punctuated with some truly bone-chilling moments.

Once the crew gets locked in for the night, they proceed to walk through the premises using their night vision cameras (just like Ghost Adventures). Things more or less go as they expect initially with nothing much happening as they theatrically challenge and taunt the ghosts to show themselves. As such they try to embellish by overacting (e.g. the psychic sensing spirits), but they don’t have to do so for long. When they start using the EVP recorders and asking questions, unsettling voices start materializing. This leads up to a literally hair-raising moment when a spirit physically interacts with the sole female crew member. The crew utterly freaks out when this happens and runs back to their base camp at the lockdown entrance. They become so terrified by what they’ve seen that they decide to sit tight until morning when the doors are opened back up. The crew member who had been monitoring them from base decides he’s brave enough to go and collect the static cameras that had been set up throughout the building, and heads off solo with a promise to return shortly.

This is where things kick into high gear. The crew member fails to return, and the others go to search for him. In so doing they discover the hospital has changed, and its geography no longer makes sense. It has become a maze with no apparent exit. As they move through the darkened corridors we see from the POV of their cameras, and it is absolutely terrifying not knowing what may happen at any given moment. Noises are heard from off camera, there’s a flash of movement here and there, all hinting at some unseen terror lying just around the next corner. It’s Blair Witch times ten scary. I watched this with a pair of headphones on, completely immersed in the sound design, and it was flat out amazing how effective it was in drawing me in. So much so that it became hard to watch. I can count on one hand the number of movies that have pulled off such a feat to this extent, and Grave Encounters has joined that exclusive club.

Sounds great right? Well you may recall I mentioned that the movie was successful for 75% of its running time. When the film hits that 75% mark things take a turn. As the crew is exploring, attempting to find the missing crew member and the way out, the movie does a major reveal of one of the malevolent entities inhabiting the hospital . . . and it is perfect. It scared the living daylights out of me, absorbed as I was by that point. It involves a digital effect, which usually results in pulling me out of the movie. Here they don’t linger on it, largely because the crew immediately scatters in all directions. The speed of the reveal keeps you from dwelling on it as an effect, and the result is one of the most disturbing images I’ve seen in a horror film in some time. Not disturbing in the gut-churning/Hostel type of way, but in a freaky/shakes you to the core manner. If you’ve seen the last five minutes or so of [REC] that’s the kind of disturbing vibe I’m talking about.

At that point in the proceedings I was thinking that Grave Encounters might be a mini-masterpiece, and it comes very close to hitting that mark. Unfortunately after the initial reveal the filmmakers get carried away. Entities are revealed frequently, and the situation no longer feels genuine. The Brothers Vicious switch abruptly to a kitchen sink approach that quickly breaks the wonderful tone they spent the first hour establishing. Thankfully the movie is almost over by this point, so there isn’t a great deal of time for things to be utterly ruined. I believe they were riffing on [REC] and its ending, but they don’t come anywhere close to duplicating the success that brilliant film’s finale. Either way it’s an unfortunate turn of events.

Despite a weak finish, the first hour of Grave Encounters is well worth the trip. If you dig found footage horror, are willing to suspend disbelief, and have a great set of headphones, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this film. Even more so if you watch Ghost Adventures!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fantasmo By the Numbers: Volume 2

Hey Superfans!

I just received exciting personal news today that I made the annual Movers & Shakers list in Library Journal. LJ is one of the major publications in the library world, and this annual list highlights folks who are doing interesting things in libraries on various fronts. The Fantasmo site made an appearance in the write up, so I’d like to welcome all newcomers to the House of Fantasmo who may head this way from the article. Breifly put, Fantasmo is a monthly program co-founder Rob Floyd and I started up at Chesapeake Central Library seven years ago. Each month we show a double-feature of mostly outrageous cult movies, frequently accompanied by all manner of ballyhoo, gimmickry, guest speakers, etc. Here on the blog I talk about Fantasmo, related yearly events, and cult movies in general. In order to provide a proper introduction, I think it only appropriate to give new arrivals a sampling of what typically gets written about here beyond our programs and events.

With this in mind I have once again taken a hard-hitting look at the site stats to identify the top 10 most viewed articles of all time here on the blog. You longtime readers may recall the last time I did this this, the top ranking item was none other than my review of Smokey and the Bandit 3: Smokey is the Bandit. I know for many readers this revelation shook your faith in humanity to the very core (truly sorry about that : ) The good news, depending on your point of view, is that this year SATB3 has been dethroned! The bad news is that the new champ isn’t exactly Citizen Kane either . . . but then this wouldn’t be Fantasmo if Orson Welles appeared on the list (unless you count the time he lent his vocal talents to Transformers: The Movie). Not to let the cat out of the bag, but (spoiler) the image at the top has something to do with the top spot on the list. You have been warned.

So without any further ado, I give you the Fantasmo Top 10 . . .

#10: Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze: Rob and I screened this at last year’s Schlock-O-Thon Anniversary special to a delighted crowd. Some call this a dreadful adaptation of a classic pulp hero, but we found it to be an entertaining 1970’s cousin to the much-heralded cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

#9: The Keep: One of the rare critical misfires from celebrated director Michael Mann. The Keep is a surreal adaptation of the F. Paul Wilson novel of the same name, which bears little resemblance to the source material and one of the most questionable rubber suited monsters of the 80’s.

#8: The Cinema of Joe Don Baker: After getting a terrific response to a survey of the cinematic works of the incomparable Lee Majors (see #4), I thought I’d take a closer look at the canon of Walking Tall megastar Joe Don Baker. Apparently there are hordes of Baker groupies out there, skyrocketing this article to #8 on the all-time list.

#7: The Henriksen Principle of Elevation: Early last summer I participated in author John Kenneth Muir’s blog-a-thon celebrating the release of the official biography of character actor Lance Henriksen. In my contribution I discussed the phenomenon in which Henriksen, by investing himself completely in every role he accepts, elevates otherwise not so fantastic films to a higher level through his mere presence.

#6: The Island: I was really happy to see this one still made the list. One of the craziest bombs from the 80’s, and most certainly one of the most fun reviews I’ve posted.

#5: Smokey is the Bandit 3: Oh how the mighty have fallen, but at least it still made the list!

#4: The Cinema of Lee Majors: I posted this after seeing a Lee Majors Viking film on Netflix. This led me to ask two important questions, which readers also found equally intriguing. First: There was a Viking film starring Lee Majors? Second: Lee Majors actually starred in theatrical films? The answer to both was a surprising, and resounding yes!

#3: Highlander II: The Quickening: Rob will not even acknowledge the existence of this film, but I find it far preferable to the later sequels and television series. The filmmakers sought to answer the mystery behind the immortals, and the answer they supplied was one of the most infamous missteps in the history of cult cinema. Fascinatingly awful.

#2: Up the Academy: Possibly the worst movie ever made. So bad MAD Magazine had their name officially removed from the credits. Yes, that bad.

#1: Cool As Ice: The Internet searchers have once again done themselves proud by putting one of the most notorious films in Fantasmo history at the top of the list. Vanilla Ice’s stab at becoming a leading man. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

So there you have it blog visitors new and seasoned, a slice of the most statistically beloved Fantasmo postings. This will either serve as a reminder of why you love Fantasmo so much, or a cold bucket of water style wake-up call that you’re spending way too much time contemplating the cinematic importance of Joe Don Baker. Enjoy!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Breaking News!

Hey Superfans!
Due to unforeseen circumstances our program for this Friday, March 16th, will have to be rescheduled. Fear not, Team Fantasmo will still take on Dracula's Family in Episode 70, but it will be in May! Stay tuned for further details.

In the meantime, we will see you on March 31st for our special edition of Fantasmo at this year's Freeplay event. Our features will be two of the most recent game-themed epics: Tron Legacy and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World!