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!


Sitting Duck said...

I can certainly understand your initial leeriness about the co-directors. Seriously, the Vicious Brothers? Unless that actually is their real surname (I'm a bit skeptical on that point).

BTW the RavenCon site has posted the time for your Team Fantasmo Presents feature, but hasn't listed what movie you'll be featuring. Can you tell us, or is that still in the air?

Jim Blanton said...

The one and only Troll 2 will be the featured film : )