Friday, February 23, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Grave Encounters (2011)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

(Don't) stop me if you've heard this one before. The footage Grave Encounters consists of is purportedly edited down from footage shot by the team of the ghost hunting TV show "Grave Encounters" during the filming of their rather fatal sixth episode.

An appropriately smug and somewhat cynical team of five (Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko, Merwin Mondesir, Mackenzie Gray and Juan Riedinger) sets out to spend a night locked in one of those creepy former asylums for the mentally ill that dot the US landscape (at least if I can believe what the horror movies - who clearly wouldn't lie to me - tell me). The ghost hunters don't go in expecting to actually find anything supernatural, obviously, but as long as they can pretend to be creeped out, it'll be good, successful reality TV, right?

Fortunately for the movie's audience, and very unfortunately for the film's protagonists, they will encounter quite a bit more paranormal activity than they ever could have expected or wished for. And while the things the crew first encounters, like doors moving by themselves, may only be a little creepy, later developments have a much more dangerous and disturbing bend. Clearly, not everybody - if anybody - will make it out of the place alive.

By now, I think, there are enough found footage/fake documentary/POV horror movies about ghost hunting TV people around to make up their own little sub-sub-genre. Unlike the other films of this sort I had the dubious honour of watching, Grave Encounters is actually a pretty good film.

The film does of course have its share of flaws. I think the interview parts before the crew is locked in could have been cut down a little, to make the film's start a little pacier. As it stands, the actual meat of the narrative begins about forty minutes into the film, just at the point when I was beginning to lose my patience with it a little.

I also could have gone without the overuse of the jerky zoom lens style in the interview sequences - it's the sort of thing nobody holding a camera in a professional or semi-professional capacity actually does (not even the directors of photography of ghost hunting reality shows), and it threatens the poor helpless audience with seasickness. Once the interview segments are over, the zoom lens is fortunately retired forever, so I'm not even sure why it's used this extensively early on at all.

Grave Encounter's biggest problem is probably the quality of its special effects. About half of the effects do actually look pretty decent to my eyes, but the other half (let me just say big-mouthed ghosts) looks too much like bad digital fakery and too little like terrible things from beyond. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that this is strictly a low budget affair, and even when the execution of the effects seems problematic, they're usually trying to show something creepy or conceptually interesting. When in doubt, I take a badly realized but interesting thing over something that looks slick but is basically boring.

As far as flaws in independently produced horror go, these are rather minor ones, and they are overshadowed by the things Grave Encounters' directors - going under the somewhat silly moniker The Vicious Brothers - do right.

Prime among things that the film does right is the way it treats its characters. Even though they are presented as slightly pompous and deeply dishonest towards their audience (I think this is what people call realism), the film still allows them more than enough sympathetic traits to make it easy for an audience (or at least me) to empathize with them. I'm not talking great character depth here - I doubt great character depth is anything POV horror can even achieve - but enough depth to make the characters human. The script certainly gets help here by actors who may be a little broad in their approach sometimes but are pretty good at switching from their early on-camera ghost hunting pomposity to people completely out of their depth and scared out of their wits.

Some of the things our not so intrepid protagonists have to face are pretty scary on a conceptual and on a concrete level, but even when they only encounter standard ghosts, these are standard ghosts doing ghostly things thematically appropriate for an empty asylum setting. These activities can't help but add a historical dimension to the ghosts, making them not just disquieting or frightening for the things they do to others, but also the things that have been done to them; a victim turned into a monster by outside forces is often more effective than a mere monster.

Aside from ghosts, though, there are also a few things making the protagonists' lives harder that come from the Weirder side of the tracks than mere dead people walking around being rude. The Vicious Brothers do some very effective things with temporal and spatial anomalies that suggest the influence of Daniel Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. It's exactly elements like these nods to Danielewski what most films of the contemporary (post-crappy-Paranormal-Activity, in contrast to the post-Blair Witch one) POV horror genre are too often missing for my taste. Hauntings of this kind are visually cheap to realize and give a film an added dimension of the frighteningly strange and unreal that rubs nicely against the hyper-realism of the POV-form, but I'm afraid too many horror directors working right now are in love with the straightforwardly scary.

Consequently, I'm glad that Grave Encounters dares to be this decisive bit different from its brethren. Now, where did I leave that EMP-meter?

No comments: