Grave Encounters (2011)
“They were searching for proof… they found it”
Director: The Vicious Brothers
Cast: Ben Wilkinson, Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko
Synopsis: For their ghost hunting reality show, a production crew locks themselves inside an abandoned mental hospital that’s supposedly haunted – and it might prove to be all too true.
Twelve years after The Blair Witch Project (1999) transformed the horror genre while simultaneously creating opportunities for a small legion of filmmakers with no budget and limited experience but heaps of enthusiasm, the ’found footage’ genre shows little sign of losing momentum. From Canada comes this effort called Grave Encounters from a pair of directors who call themselves The Vicious Brothers, a name which at least adds a small touch of humour to a movie that, once it finally gets its act together, provides a surprisingly consistent level of high tension and horror. While ‘found footage’ movies have pretty much outstayed their welcome by now, The Vicious Brothers do at least prove that it’s still possible to deliver an effective entry in the genre without really coming up with anything new.
The film follows the exploits of the crew of one of those palpably fake haunted house reality TV shows. You know the type: a cheesy presenter and his expert Ghost Hunter explore creepy old buildings in the dark while one of their unseen production crew bang a pipe in another room or slam a door. Probably the creepiest thing about these programmes is the way the presenter’s eyes glow eerily in the dark,, and one of Grave Encounters’ strengths is the way in which it exploits this cheesiness to make our sympathy for this hapless crew greater than it would have been once things turn scary. We realise that we misjudged this cynical bunch, that they’re people capable of the same fears we are.
Sean Rogerson plays Lance Preston, the show’s slick, ostensibly shallow presenter who, in his genuine desire to create as realistic a programme as possible, isn’t beyond bribing a gardener twenty bucks to claim for a camera that he once saw a ghost, or employing actor Houston Gray (Mackenzie Gray) to play his resident psychic. The show’s latest location shoot is a large former mental institution containing what seem like miles of narrow corridors, which create a suitably forbidding atmosphere for both the programme and the film. He instructs the abandoned building’s caretaker to lock them in the building with strict instructions not to unlock the doors until 6am the next morning.
At first, the paranormal activity is minor: a wheelchair moves an inch unseen by the crew, the odd noise is heard. But slowly, the phenomena becomes increasingly scary and threatening, and it’s not long before the crew’s previously boisterous mood disintegrates and they begin bickering amongst themselves. When the increasingly desperate crew manage to break open the front door of the institution they’re horrified to discover that the door now leads onto another dark, deserted corridor. The stairs to the fire escape on the roof are blocked by a solid wall, and outside the barred windows the darkness of night refuses to lift.
If, like me, you’ve grown just a little jaded by the ’found footage’ horror sub-genre, you might find that Grave Encounters turns your opinion around – at least for the duration of its running time. Guilty of all that’s bad about the genre in the first half-hour – the shaky hand-held camera constantly zooms in and out on its subjects for no reason and to nauseating effect, while virtually nothing of interest happens – its brooding sense of menace quickly takes hold once the institutions doors are locked, and the tension becomes almost unbearable at times. The horror isn’t particularly graphic – although we do encounter the occasional face-stretching demon – but is inherent in the situation as the claustrophobic corridors of the institution refuse to concede to natural laws and the futility of its captive’s attempts to escape become apparent. It’s a bit like watching a person drowning from afar – you’re desperate to help, but there’s nothing you can do…