Studio: Tribeca Film
Director: The Vicious Brothers
Writer: The Vicious Brothers
Producer: Shawn Angelski
Stars: Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko, Merwin Mondesir, Mackenzie Gray, Juan Riedinger
The cast of a paranormal reality television show becomes trapped inside a haunted asylum.
Off the top of my head I can think of nearly a dozen “found footage” movies that involve a group of people trapped in a haunted whatever, and that is only the proverbial iceberg tip. It would be easy to dismiss “Grave Encounters” as “just another one,” but critics can be quick to condemn a plot simply because it has been explored previously. That would be a true shame considering “Grave Encounters” stands full-bodied above its peers. Besides, TV is inundated with paranormal “reality” shows (“Ghost Hunters,” “Paranormal State,” “Haunted Collector,” et al.), so why not overcrowd the film world while we are at it?
In the film, “Grave Encounters” is a fictional reality show (there is an oxymoron for you) about paranormal researchers investigating the supernatural. They might have had a hit on their hands, although no one will ever know. Only five episodes were completed. The cast was never seen again after their trip to film a sixth episode at Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. The footage they shot, on the other hand, was found. And now the public can see what transpired within the sanitarium walls that led to their strange disappearances.
The “paranormal hunters trapped in a haunted locale” premise is a filmmaker’s favorite because it is a ready-made setup for “found footage.” But “Grave Encounters” does not use this contrivance as an excuse. The paranormal reality show and its smarmy crew are an active and essential part of the story. A snide undertone can even be detected that the filmmakers wish they could see the insufferable cast of such shows tortured in the real world, too.
Host Lance Preston is the type of mildly obnoxious personality that reality television producers think audiences enjoy. What he lacks in endearment he makes up for in an accurate characterization of a self-obsessed television host who thinks more of himself than anyone else does. The rest of the cast is not quite as well defined, with the exception of phony psychic medium Houston Gray. Houston has a knack for going into character at inappropriate times, and host Preston never misses an opportunity to express his displeasure with Houston’s shtick. Deciding to chain lock themselves inside a haunted house for the night turns out to be a questionable decision. As their expedition unfolds, the cast of “Grave Encounters” grows as disturbed as the 80,000 patients reportedly mistreated by the shadowy medical facility.
For all of the derivative “found footage” tropes it employs, “Grave Encounters” cautiously avoids many others. The film is noteworthy for the things it does, as well as the things it does not do.
First, the crew actually turns the cameras off. A common criticism of “found footage” is that characters never put the camera down no matter how imminent the danger is. Of course, if they did not capture at least some of it on tape, there would be no movie. Here, after a scene where a bed frame flies against the ceiling and inspires everyone to beat feet, there are only a few short seconds of running before cutting to a shot of the crew sleeping. For once, the cameraman finally stopped taping long enough to concentrate on saving his life.
A similar moment occurs when a word is found carved into the flesh of one person’s back. The crew has already seen what happened and has only turned on the camera to document it for the audience. It provides the sense that the cameras are in fact not on constantly and notable events are taking place offscreen between chunks of footage.
Noticeably absent is a conspicuous score. Another typical “found footage” puzzler is who added music to purported footage of supposedly authentic tragic deaths. “Grave Encounters” sidesteps this trap. One scene uses rhythmic drumming from distant pipe or wall thumping to heighten the tension from environmental sounds instead of relying on an artificial soundtrack.
The movie also wastes little time getting to the “good stuff.” Usual “found footage” expectations consist of 70 minutes of filler before a 10-minute climax. “Grave Encounters” dials it up to 10 well before the halfway point and never comes back down.
Best of all, “Grave Encounters” is frighteningly entertaining. The Vicious Brothers pull off several memorable jump scares, staging them just right to keep the pacing unbalanced and unpredictable. It starts with a light that tips over slowly. Even though we watch it begin leaning towards the ground, it still satisfies with a thunderous crash despite knowing what is about to happen. It primes the pump perfectly for the subsequent scares that are definitely not telegraphed. From an arm that grabs through a window to a blood-filled tub surprise, the jolts keep coming. Top it off with one character devouring a rat raw and a few creepy night vision ghosts, and “Grave Encounters” satisfies in a way that many films in this “found footage” sub-genre only fail to imitate. Perhaps the premise is unoriginal, but that is a sin worth forgiving when the result is genuinely fun and more effective than whatever others have come before it.
Review Score: 80