Release Date: September 9th, 2011 (US); April 20th, 2012 (UK)
Starring: Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko
We are abruptly informed that “what you’re about to see is not a horror movie”. Well, it is. At least it’s meant to be. Grave Encounters is so utterly infatuated by the genre, by appeasing the masses, that it sacrifices integrity for indiscreetness. Checklists at the ready: haunted asylum, moving wheelchairs, amateur crack team. It is all here. The Vicious Brothers have made a bad film, one that seeps with obvious happenings and undeniably familiar events. But they haven’t made a boring film. What Grave Encounters lacks in spontaneity it makes up for in irrational, occasionally eerie and often humorous sequences.
As far as ghost investigations go, the Grave Encounters team aren’t having much luck. When they seek out and pitch up at a desolate mental hospital, the group led by presenter Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) are quite willing to manipulate matters for additional shock value. Then increasingly strange occurrences rear, leading Lance and company to the stark realisation that they’ve landed in a location not to messed with.
Grave Encounters is many things. Ordinary. Ambling. Almost entirely lacking in scares. Truth be told, the first thirty minutes play out as a comedy, an embellishment laden on the film precisely due to one thing it ain’t: tactful. As upcoming events are foreshadowed, it feels like we’ve bought a ticket for the latest horror movie walk through; from a quick reminder of how dark it gets at night to the singling out of a window that peculiarly opens by itself, everything reeks of internal uncertainty and external panic on the filmmakers’ part. And it gets worse — before our not-so-beloved reality honchos begin their quote/unquote official investigation, somebody showing them around the asylum points out the service tunnels. (“It’s like a maze down here, you could easily get lost”). Paranormal terrors are set up in a similar vein to glass bottles, or targets, poised and waiting to be smashed.
Don’t worry about having to clean the subsequent shard-like mess. Even though The Vicious Brothers — who wrote and directed the picture — plainly relay their scare tactics, the film struggles to follow through. Sheer obviousness is an issue. We know what to expect because the horror has already been hinted at, and it’s not as if said horror is intuitive enough to overcome our expectations. The camera often peers down corridors for periods of time hoping to conjure up something of a creepy atmosphere. These moments are better but remain held down by a prevailing lack of authenticity emanating from an amateurish presentation, both within the film’s context and outwith its boundaries.
For instance, at the start a producer played by Ben Wilkinson, who is never present during the investigation, informs us that the content we are about to view hasn’t been tampered with in any way, apart from some editing to alleviate time constraints. Why, then, are behind-the-curtain sections left in? A car interrupting host Lance Preston’s introduction to the episode, or the team’s unrelated small talk upon meeting a historian. These are nagging issues that hardly amount to a fatal whole, but they are indicative of the filmmakers’ complacency. Attempts to induce realism are trodden on by a flawed premise. Just as events seem to be gaining some sort of momentum, such as the aforementioned shots settling on eerie corridors, this complacency once again crops up. Grave Encounters is scariest in silence and, though it owes more to REC than originality, the ending is quite unsettling. It simmers with hair-raising solemnity. Elsewhere, there is far too much shouting.
Grave Encounters would be significantly less entertaining minus its cast of cartoon characters who constantly indulge in gleeful idiocy. Lance, played by Sean Rogerson, is terrible. Our lead is the amateur biting off more than he can chew. The presenter pays an unassuming gardener to make something spooky up, and we’re resultantly left to ponder which is funnier: the caretaker’s nonchalant reaction to Lance’s request or the notion that, when push comes to shove, anyone would actually believe the local grass-cutter. During his Emmy award winning comedic exploits, Lance also decides to hire an overly eccentric, dark sunglasses wearing medium who emphatically gasps upon entering each room. (Incidentally, the ‘medium’ is probably a better gardener than he is spirit converser).
Rogerson’s persona is just one of a band of stupid characters who make stupid decisions for stupid reasons, and they each know of their dumbness. (“I know this sounds really stupid, but…”). We’ve reached a point in horror where lunacy has become the norm, an unfortunate feature that for the most part is something we must roll with to at least attain some level of enjoyment. It’s disheartening but it’s also reality — not an exclusive one, thankfully. We can’t take any of what is going on throughout Grave Encounters with a modicum of seriousness because there is hardly an ounce of existing tension and the characters are clichéd numpties. Believing in them is out of question, as is empathising with their plight.
Grave Encounters is so wrapped up in its attempts to appease the mass audience that the film misguidedly ventures down a shadowy corridor of ‘been there done that’. The Vicious Brothers’ piece might momentarily tickle a few horror cravings for those attracted by towards a shallow scare, but even that is debatable. The occasional influx of genuine terror hurts more because it signifies unfulfilled potential.
Perhaps it is best not to fret, and to simply giggle along with the absurdness.
Images copyright (©): Tribeca Film Festival