Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Grave Encounters,” directed by a pair of friends who have billed themselves at The Vicious Brothers, have made something that is genuinely creepy with “Grave Encounters,” another entry into the found-footage genre of horror film. The twist this time: one of those douchey ghost-hunting reality TV shows, led by the excellently douchey Lance Preston (a very good Sean Rogerson), locks itself into an abandoned insane asylum for the night to track any ghost activity on camera. Will they make it through the night? I will answer with a wicked and portentous “maybe.” Bwa ha ha. What follows is a rather good little thriller that deals less with torture and conventions, and more with classically scary images, like doors that open themselves, eerie sounds coming from the walls, and unexplained furniture movement.
The asylum is plagued by stories collected from trespassing Goth kids who go there to make out, a nervous caretaker, and a Mexican gardener whom we see getting paid off on camera. We see the requisite group of film types, including the skittish Sasha (Ashley Gryzko), the panicky black guy (Merwin Mondesir), the good-natured techie (Juan Riedinger), and the paid actor posing as a psychic (Mackenizie Gray).
The charm of this genre (a genre occupied by “Paranormal Activity,” “The Blair Witch Project,” and a few less popular titles) is seeing the slow progression of paranormal weirdness. The camera may not immediately see any monsters/ghosts/whatever, but the audience gets immensely creeped out by something as simple as a creaking door or window, shot through the green chiaroscuro of a consumer-grade video lens. The first two-thirds of “Grave Encounters” (named for the TV show within the movie) are rife with some excellently scary moments of unnoticed moving furniture, and some eerie shadows. We see the wheelchair in the low light of the night vision camera, even if the camera operator doesn’t. We know that chair will move on its own. We know it. We’re staring at it. And when it does, you’re still astonished and scared.
The problem is, as the film continues, and the characters begin vanishing down long, darkened corridors, “Grave Encounters” feels the need to amp up the spooks by showing too much. I understand that things need to escalate as the film progresses, but it’s always going to be scarier if we don’t see the creature. There is a scene, for instance, where a character, stalking around alone, finds a severed human tongue on the ground. That is immediately undercut by a bigger “boo!” moment, that ruins how creepy the human tongue was. What the film does with time is way creepier than actually seeing ghosts. Seeing vague shapes in photographs is going to be much spookier than watching a monster wrench an arm from someone’s socket. This is a genre that banks on slow burns and subtle details. When crashes into climax territory, “Grave Encounters” actually loses a lot of its thrills. Until then, though, there are several spooky scenes involving all the characters in mounting dreadful ways.
I’m sorry to be so vague, but this is a film that relies on surprises, and I don’t want to spoil any of the them. I won’t mention what happens to any of the characters, who makes it out alive, and who doesn’t (if any). I don’t want to say what the story of the asylum is. I will say that I would have appreciated an epilogue, as the film is prologued by a TV producer announcing that the footage we’re seeing is un-doctored, and was only edited for time. A similar outro would have been appropriate.
This genre will, if done even mildly competently, will always interest me, and will have the ability to spook me. Every time I hear a vague, whispering tape recording played in a movie, I feel dread. “Grave Encounters” managed to get me good a few times.