Just as slasher films were done to death in the ’80s and ’90s, the “found footage” subgenre (made popular by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project) is now being exploited to the point of becoming tired. After films like Cloverfield, [Rec], Quarantine, The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity, Diary of the Dead and countless other films, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a fresh-feeling found footage movie, and Grave Encounters is further proof of this. Even though the fine details have been changed, Grave Encounters recycles countless broad strokes from its cinematic cousins. But to be fair, the subgenre is so overdone because, if done right, it works marvellously. While this Canadian import does lack original thinking, it nevertheless achieves what it needed to achieve in a competent fashion, pulling together an interesting story within an extremely creepy location, and offering up a huge amount of thrills.
In the context of the story, Grave Encounters is the title of a budding ghost-hunting reality TV show. In each episode, host Lance Preston (Rogerson) and his team visit a haunted locale and spend the night, setting up cameras to capture any possible paranormal activity. For the team’s sixth episode, they venture to a rundown psychiatric hospital that’s said to be haunted. Due to his enthusiasm for presenting the show as realistically as possible, Lance asks the building’s caretaker to lock them in the hospital for one night. To get as much coverage as possible, several static cameras are set up in “paranormal hotspots” while the hand-held camera crew roam the hallways, encouraging and riling up whatever ghosts that may be haunting the structure. However, the team – who are sceptical to believe in the paranormal – get much more than they bargained for. Slowly but surely, their fun and games give way to a horrifying nightmare.
On top of being a found footage horror movie, Grave Encounters satirises popular “reality” shows like Ghost Hunters through fly-on-the-wall footage which shows the team falsifying material for the sake of the program (they even pay someone to make up a ghost story). Grave Encounters also nails the elements which were critical for making the titular television show seem real – the opening promo is absolutely spot-on with its cheesy graphics and corny music, while black-and-white archival footage of the facility looks real, and there’s a wealth of interesting, authentic-sounding background information about the building. Further contributing to the fun is some sly self-referential humour – the clinic’s late doctor carries the surname Friedkin in an obvious nod to the director of The Exorcist.
In terms of scares and atmosphere, the picture owes a lot to Paranormal Activity due to the tense on-camera stretches of anticipation and the way that the paranormal entities begin their reign of terror with placid antics such as opening windows or shutting doors. Grave Encounters also owes a great debt to The Blair Witch Project in the way the hospital is turned into a never-ending, inescapable nightmare, and the way that Lance directly addresses the camera to document the experience. But despite this innovation deficiency, first-time filmmakers Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz (billed as The Vicious Brothers) have crafted an extremely competent scare-fest. The sense of atmosphere is insanely bone-chilling, and there are several terrifying images and set-pieces throughout the film that may haunt you for days. However, while the ending is intense, the film fails to provide adequate closure. For instance, considering the film’s events, how were all the cameras and tapes recovered? What was the aftermath of these events? Were any bodies found? Most found footage movies end with titled explication to provide at least some degree of closure, but we get none of that here, ultimately leaving a bit of a bad aftertaste.
As Lance, Sean Rogerson is sublime. The actor managed to nail that type of over-the-top, cheesy, over-confident persona that we often see hosting these types of reality shows. And when the shit hits the fan, Rogerson believably transforms Lance from a fame-hungry TV host into an overwhelmed, horrified guy determined to save his team. Surprisingly, character behaviour is for the most part not dumb here; the characters seem like real people, and their realistic decisions and actions solidify this. Automatically, this makes them easier to care about. Thankfully, all of the actors submitted highly believable work which aids the production’s sense of authenticity.
Grave Encounters does not revolutionise the found footage subgenre, but who really expected it to? The narrative’s derivative nature matters not, as The Vicious Brothers nailed important assets like tension, scares and atmosphere. From start to finish, this is an extremely skilful and enthralling journey into pure terror.