When you really think about it, Grave Encounters is on a genius level of absurdity and sillyness in horror filmmaking.
But the debut film from the Vicious Brothers (Who? I don’t know, but they sound nasty) actually spins the found footage genre on its head with a unique twist, sucking its viewers into the madness.
Before we get to that (no spoilers, don’t worry), let’s chat about this genre. It seems that the found footage genre is here to stay. The Blair Witch Project made it a new way to tell horror stories. Cloverfield found a way to try to authentically tell a monster movie story while retaining a big Hollywood feeling. Spain’s [Rec] remains one of the scariest horror films of the last decade.
But like any genre you have your duds. That said, it’s also not fair to equate one found footage film with another. The genre actually dates back as far as 1980 with the release of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. That film is more remembered for its authenticity than anything else, but with half the film told through found footage it remains the genre’s grandfather. Before The Blair Witch Project scared the pants off of plenty, unique and original films like The Last Broadcast and Man Bites Dog utilized the same techniques.
Because these films came at the beginning of what would become a sort of craze in both Hollywood and independent filmmaking the titles weren’t compared and weren’t generalized like the genre is now. That’s natural, of course. But is it fair? Plenty of these found footage films in the last few years have been good. Some respect the horror genre – or whatever they aim for – but decide to tell their stories in a different way. The Paranormal Activity series has gotten the most out of the ability to try and tell a horror story in the most authentic way.
And now we get to Grave Encounters. My job is to try to explain to you why you should pick this found footage horror film over a not so hot selection of others without spoiling a damn thing. It isn’t easy, you know?
The set up has us joining a team of ghost hunters. You know, the kind of shows that are still insanely popular with people for some reason? Where despite how overproduced their final footage is nothing ever happens? Because ghosts most likely aren’t real and aren’t waiting around for their 15 minutes of fame on the SyFy Channel? Those shows.
Grave Encounters initially succeeds at mocking the hell out of these shows. The shows host is an ego-driven and part-time douchebag Lance Preston. He hams it up for the camera, has a flair for the dramatic and pays gardeners to make up stories about things they’ve seen just to get some footage. Before I continue, I have to mention the BBC’s Ghostwatch. In 1992 they managed to scare an entire country of people by airing what they lead everyone to believe was a live ghost hunting experience. The things that happen in that television special predate the crap found in Paranormal Activity and the entire production puts most found footage and documentary spoof films to shame.
So Preston and his team entire the abandoned mental hospital through a door telling them that death awaits, take a tour of notorious spots – suicides, infamous patients and all that fun stuff – and have the caretaker lock them in from the outside. The slow beginnings of Grave Encounters is actually where the film begins to initially succeed. It’s funny watching these types of films. You know it’s coming and you’re ready for it. The fun is seeing how the filmmakers, in this case the Vicious Brothers (I can’t believe I’ve typed that name twice now), decide to let it unravel in front of you.
In Grave Encounters the hauntings begin slowly. You have your typical wheel chair slowly rolling through the hallway, a nice sound picked up by the EVP bullshit device and more things that wouldn’t really be out of place for most of these “authentic” television shows. Maybe a door slowly closing. I don’t know. But the key today is finding a way to separate your film from the rest and the Vicious Brothers (can’t stop laughing at that name) found a way.
Without giving too much away, let me just say that the building itself works its way into the film’s scares. It plays tricks on the five locked inside. In a weird way this brings another element to the survival and documentation of the characters. It adds another threat and plays more tricks on your mind. The Vicious Brothers found a way to drag their audience into the characters state of frenzied paranoia and fear. I was certainly sucked into the showmanship the Vicious Brothers were giving us and found most of it fascinating. Demons, sadistic doctors, evil spirits, satanic cults. You name it, the Vicious Brothers have got it.
Grave Encounters still has a few moments that came as no surprise and at times forgot how to find out new ways to give a scare. At a certain point in your horror watching life you become tired of cameras swinging around to find a scare and so on. Those techniques unfortunately work their way into this film, but eventually the Vicious Brothers work their way out of that jam by finding new ways to keep the viewer interested and the characters terrified – not that you care about their well-being, because you can’t stand a single one of them. But like I’ve said before, that doesn’t matter all the time and in this case might even help your enjoyment. One of the characters, Houston, is a bullshit psychic medium who adds dramatic flair to Preston’s stupid show. It’s actually a great tongue-in-cheek mockery of the many similar people you’ll see on your television doing this kind of thing. That combined with the actual creepy nature of the film and the techniques deployed by the two Vicious dudes really elevates this film from standard to well above average. It has something to lean on that most similar films just don’t.
You can complain all you want about just how tired you are on this genre. It’s been around longer than you know and is representative of patterns the horror genre has always given us. Biting the bullet is part of being a fan of horror filmmaking. After Wes Craven and John Carpenter picked up the slasher bug from the Italians who created it, their classics turned into a muddled state of affairs. Once the Japanese started creating surrealistic and inventive horror films that were artistic triumphs, we had to remake every single one of them. And now we’re in the found footage era.
If you’re looking for scares you could do much worse than Grave Encounters. Its general creepiness is enough for the novice horror fan and the twists, turns and fun the Vicious Brothers (I really hate typing that) throw at you is plenty for seasoned horror veterans to talk about.