Grave Encounters (2011)
(15) Running time: 92 minutes
Directors: The Vicious Brothers
Writers: The Vicious Brothers
Starring: Sean Rogerson, Juan Riedinger, Ashleigh Gryzko, Mackenzie Gray
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
The found footage genre of horror is showing no signs of slowing down, or running out of ideas. In all honesty, it was probably Cannibal Holocaust which started it all with its found documentary tale of cannibals slaughtering a group of explorers all those years ago. The Blair Witch Project made the idea cool again in 1999, and then classics such as (Rec) and Paranormal Activity have continued to push the genre in new directions. With Spanish horror Atrocious just around the corner, alien horror R51 and other horrors such as Evidence and the soon to be released Apollo 18, found footage horror is a big thing right now, and a scary one that really works given the right circumstances and setting. Grave Encounters is yet another to add to that list, but is it good enough to add to the list of recent classics like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and (Rec)? Read on to find out…
The Vicious Brothers (great name), incredibly, are new to this horror lark, this being their first film, but to watch Grave Encounters it is hard to believe that. The film plays on basic, primal fears and uses, for the most part, simple and believable scares guaranteed to scare the shit out of you. The premise is just perfect for the found footage genre, a group of ghost hunters devise a plan for a TV show where the group will find a haunted location each week, spend the night in that location with the doors locked and the cameras rolling. With all kinds of scientific equipment able to measure sounds, atmosphere changes and the like, and with not only their own cameras but also camera set up in key locations, they plan to capture the whole experience on video in the hope that the better the scares, the better the ratings. The crew, lead by Lance Preston (Rogerson), even has their own psychic to help them ‘talk’ to these ghosts! The crew is made up of Lance, Matt White (Reidinger), Houston Gray (Gray) the psychic, Sasha Parker (Gryzko) and T.C Gibson (Merwin Mondesir) and on their sixth week they are about to enter the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, somewhere which may well be their most haunted location yet!
What I really loved about Grave Encounters from the very beginning is how incredibly real it all felt, and how authentic and how damned easy it was to connect with the characters. See, in a film like this, if you don’t make a connection with the cast then it aint gonna work, you need to care what happens to them and once you do, any terror unleashed with be far more powerful and, thankfully, far more frightening. Believe me, Grave Encounters IS frightening. Lance is the perfect lead for the group, desperate to give his audience what they want, desperate for ratings and willing to fake strange happenings just to boost viewing figures. He works brilliantly with Houston the psychic, both put on a wonderful display of over the top behaviour whilst ‘filming’ for the show, and then perfectly change back to normal once the actual show has stopped filming. A truly brilliant scene see’s Houston make his entrance as a ‘famous’ psychic, you will find yourself questioning his acting abilities as he is SO over the top, and then you will find yourself laughing in agreement once the scene has finished shooting and he looks at Lance with a cheeky grin and asks “was that OK?” Lance introduces the hospital caretaker, who will lock them in for the night, in an almost camp and sycophantic way, he pays the Mexican gardener to make up a story for the camera about a spooky incident, interviews a young couple who once spent the night there and saw a shadowy figure, he even interviews the hospital’s owner. All the stories build up the promise of something truly terrifying happening, but of course you question everything as it looks like a charade. The caretaker takes them round the hospital in the daylight and points out what will become the shows ‘hot’ zones where they will set up a camera to film whilst they explore the hospital. There’s the bath of blood where a woman killed herself, the story is dripping water can be heard at times, the window that is locked shut at night, but always open the next day and also the place where the young couple saw the shadowy figure. As the crew settle in for a night of ‘fun’ they play loud music, have a laugh, set up their cameras and begin the show, they have no idea that for the first time ever, they will be filming REAL ghosts…
With the characters starting to feel like your mates, and Lance pushing for the next big scare but staying incredibly likeable, things begin to get real. There are no lights in the hospital and so the crew rely on their own camera lights or night vision to see, and when running footsteps are heard from the next floor up, the crew begin to think some locals are having a laugh. It is not until they are in a dark corridor, a little nervous to hungry for a top show, that they suddenly realise they are well and truly not alone. While searching for the sound of the footsteps they all stop, hear another distant noise and all of a sudden Sasha’s hair is lifted by an unseen presence, she screams and runs, panic sets in and within less than twenty minutes we are suddenly thrown into a world of absolute terror that promises to only get worse, and it does. Grave Encounters is littered with some of the finest scares you will see in a horror all year with some absolutely stunning build ups and real fear from the actors. If the dark makes you in the slightest way jumpy, this film will scare the living crap out of you. See, Grave Encounters uses very basic ideas and turns them into such high quality scares you will begin to beg for it all to stop. Scare after scare is delivered, often in the most subtle of ways. Everything is seen through the crews own cameras or the cameras placed in the ‘hot’ zones and there is no escape, no way of distancing yourself as you would a normally filmed horror. You are right there in the thick of it, right there with them in those dark corridors and underground tunnels. You share every moment of panic as you follow someone’s jittery camera as it quickly looks behind, pauses then quickly turns back, pauses, a noise, quickly looks behind again as you expect to see something. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, but by this point you are so on edge you are almost begging for the scare to end your suffering. If the cast were not believable this would not have worked, but they are believable and they do things that you would do in those situations, this is no easy to read slasher where the victims deserve to be killed, this is something much more clever.
If the sound of banging on walls or a harsh wind is enough to upset your nerves, then this horror is definitely for you. The film is full of ideas, almost too many ideas, but the simple truth is they work and I found myself jumping out of my seat countless times. I would love to go into more detail about the scares themselves, but anything more mentioned about plot or what actually happens will ruin the surprise, so I mustn’t. This film manages to superbly keep up the scares in brilliant style for a good hour, and then sadly, things threaten to go a bit over the top and get a little too silly and destroy any realism the film built up, almost. It does get silly, but manages to not push it far enough to ruin what has come before, it loses its way a bit and for a good twenty minutes the scares were sadly watered down to the point they just weren’t scary, but that’s just my preference, others, I am sure, will be terrified. Another point to the film which did start to become irritating is most of the really big scares which involved the crew running for their lives were joined by a camera that was cutting out of power on and off, shaking uncontrollably and you could barely see anything. I appreciate the director’s wanted realism, and I suppose if you were running like that the camera would not function to its full potential, but it did become annoying when it happened every time! Saying that though, the films build up to its finale is terrific and I doubt you will find another film this year to put your nerves on edge quite like this film does. It does falter towards the end, but hey, the level of brilliance, attention to detail and sheer skill during the build up is simply excellent. My wife has spent many horrors hiding behind a cushion for the odd scene, but never has she spent a whole hour with her head hidden by a pillow asking me to tell her when it is over. Me? It takes a lot to scare me and you won’t find me hiding behind a pillow, although I did put my hand up to my face once or twice, just in case! Grave Encounters is expertly presented, using the most basic of ingredients and delivering one of the finest horror films of the year in terms of sheer and utter terror. This is most certainly NOT one to watch before bed, or before spending the night in a haunted house somewhere! This is scary stuff and long may the found footage genre continue, especially if it continues to be as good as this!