Although it was greeted with a mixed reception, Grave Encounters developed into something of an underground internet sensation, with the trailer racking up an astonishing 25 million views to date on YouTube. Masterminded by The Vicious Brothers, Grave Encounters was a creepy spin on the found footage subgenre, providing plenty of thrills and an engaging narrative. Its cult following guaranteed a sequel, which was hastily thrown together and released scarcely a year after its predecessor. Written by The Vicious Brothers but directed by newcomer John Poliquin, Grave Encounters 2 does carry a certain degree of merit, but it ultimately underwhelms. It exhibits promise in its conceptual framework, yet the flick crumbles as it approaches the finish line, introducing idiotic ideas and ill-advisedly leaving room for another sequel.
In a commendable masterstroke, Grave Encounters 2 swiftly establishes itself as being part of our reality in its opening sequence. The film begins with a montage of clips showing YouTube video bloggers reviewing the first film. One of the vloggers is nerdy film student Alex Wright (Harmon), who’s less than impressed with the flick. Alex is a wishful budding filmmaker who hopes to be the next Craven or Carpenter, and believes that every current horror film is pure junk. In response to his review, a YouTube user known as “Death Awaits” sends Alex a series of anonymous messages implying that the events of Grave Encounters are genuine. Curious, Alex digs deeper and deeper into the mystery, becoming increasingly convinced that the film is in fact comprised of real found footage. Having been given the location of the haunted asylum from the movie, Alex spearheads a road trip to investigate, recruiting a few fellow film students – including close friend Trevor (Playfair) and love interest Jennifer (Lapp) – to join him. Alex is prepared, too, bringing an array of filmmaking equipment to document anything and everything that transpires.
Using YouTube clips to open the film was a terrific creative decision, but the subsequent first act is tedious, moving at a mercilessly slow pace through uninvolving scenes of character interaction. Naturally, the aim was to build up to the return to the haunted asylum and develop the central characters along the way, yet intention is not the same thing as achievement. An early party scene is borderline unwatchable, and Alex’s growing fascination with Grave Encounters fails to gain as much traction as it should have done. It’s also unbelievable that the characters would film as much of their personal lives as shown here – it’s simply too convenient. With that said, though, the brilliance of this sequel’s plot cannot be overstated. Grave Encounters 2 is exceedingly meta, often in an impressively creative fashion. The Vicious Brothers have answers for everything that would make us believe the first film to be fake: we learn that the cast members used stage names for the sake of their ghost-hunting TV show, the original film’s producer admits they added cheesy digital effects to enhance a few moments, and The Vicious Brothers are revealed as just a couple of low-level interns who agreed to have their names put on the picture.
Thankfully, Grave Encounters 2 begins to foster momentum following the re-introduction of Jerry Hartfield (Wilkinson), the producer of the first film. And things get really interesting when Alex pitches the idea that he may be in the middle of making the sequel to Grave Encounters. How meta can you get?! Once the proceedings shift to the familiar asylum, though, the results are a mixed bag. The picture is atmospheric and at times horrifying, to be sure, but the material grows tiresome fairly quickly since we can predict what will happen. Moreover, Poliquin is not as skilled as The Vicious Brothers in terms of pacing or scares. It’s a wonder why The Vicious Brothers opted out of directorial duties this time around.
In order to justify this sequel’s existence, The Vicious Brothers needed to expand the mythology of the original film and introduce a fresh batch of novel ideas. Alas, this is where the wheels really fall off, as the picture begins to dabble in the realm of sci-fi. I won’t spoil too much, but, suffice it to say, Lance Preston (Rogerson) makes his return here to explain some metaphysical nonsense that becomes too much to deal with, shifting the premise from simple creepy horror to something more akin to Stargate. The attempt to expand the franchise’s lore is appreciated, but it’s handled poorly, and this type of justification for the hospital’s disposition diminishes the experience. This culminates with a character-betraying climax which fails on practically every front, though a final scene with Jerry Hartfield is a stroke of meta genius. Oh, and the movie’s internal logic crumbles in one scene when we’re shown security camera footage from a building that, as it turns out, does not actually exist.
The biggest strength of Grave Encounters 2 is Sean Rogerson, who returns to play Lance Preston here as a mix of Gollum and a crazed prospector. It’s a strong performance which gives the actor the chance to do something different rather than rehashing his work in the previous film. Ultimately, if you’re willing to endure the sluggish first act, fans of the original Grave Encounters may enjoy this follow-up, though its nowhere near as strong as its predecessor. The Vicious Brothers for the most part do a terrific job of breaking the fourth wall and subtly tearing at the edges of our reality, even though the positives are unfortunately affected by a number of poor decisions.