(Remember folks you too can lock me away in a rotting mental asylum to get lobotomized if only you buy Son Of Danse Macabre on your Nook or Kindle and email me a picture)
Allow me to be clear, I am just as tired of the found footage genre as the next guy. No wait, strike that- I’m willing to bet that I am much more tired of the found footage genre than the next guy. I’m tired of the way that each film uses the exact same three or four scares. I’m tired of the way that it allows for the same BS copout ending to be trotted out in every case. I’m tired of the way that it lack of aesthetics and grammar can sap even the skill of a director like George Romero. I’m tired of its cheapness, I’m tired of its lack of imagination. I’m tired of its lazy staging and even lazier writing. I am tired of it.
So let me say that it means a great deal that Grave Encounters, if not exactly restoring my faith in the subgenre, at least proved to me that imagination and style can be applied to the genre by anyone with half a will to. As much as am loathe to praise the work of a couple of filmmakers who would self affix the name "The Vicious Brothers" (what's the matter fellas was “The Scary Dudes” takens?), Grave Encounters is actually a pretty decent little scare film that threw in some genuine left turns. Say what you will about it, but its problems are not the problems of the genre as a whole. Far from lazy it is staged with precision and a genuine talent for composition and far from shoving its scares and effects in the background, blurred and out of focus, Grave Encounters downright assaults the viewer with them.
Grave Encounters starts off as a promo reel for one of those ghost hunter shows where people walk around staring into night vision cameras, holding evp meters looking scared. It’s actually the first time that Grave Encounters gives an inkling of how creative its going to be. It replicates and mocks the grammar of such shows quite efficiently, complete with gratuitous time lapse shots, the pasty faced town historian that they’ve trotted out to point out the skeletons in the closet, the classic pan in zoom out down a spooky hallway trick, and the cast arrayed in ridiculous group poses before whatever crumbling edifice they’re tackling this week.
Far from a crew of true believers, the hosts and crew of Grave Encounters are a team of cynical professionals, and half the fun of the early run of Grave Encounters is watching them drop their tremulous sincere on camera poses at the drop of a hat in order to bribe passerbys for stories, laugh at the bullshit they’re slinging or set up scares. Of course as you might have guessed, given that it’s a horror film and what not, the building they’re preparing to shoot in, a hulking former insane asylum, is actually haunted and they’re actually very screwed.
The Vicious Brothers (sigh) are very smart about the pacing of their film, starting off small with the type of events that actually do feature on these shows, before building gradually into the poltergeist like attacks normally found in the found footage genre and then, quite unexpectedly (and gratifyingly) dropping all pretense and going for an all out assault.
The Vicious Brothers, (sigggghhhh) also obviously know their genre and command a wide array of films to crib from. Not just the inevitable callbacks to Session 9 and The Blair Witch Project (and yes that’s pretty much the Mississippi of found footage horror but there is no mistaking certain set-ups) but everything from Coffin Joe to House Of 1000 Corpses gets referenced. Trust me the last thing I expected to see when cueing up the movie was an extended homage/ripoff of House Of Freaking Leaves (the official title).
The problem with Grave Encounters is that it ultimately falls prey to 100 foot bug syndrome, the idea that when the door is thrown open and the monster revealed, the audience screams because it sees a hundred foot bug but is ultimately relieved that it is not a thousand foot bug that has been revealed. When Grave Encounters is allowed to play things low key through inference it manages to create a genuine atmosphere of dread (And though I ribbed it the callback to House Of Leaves, when the asylum morphs into a labyrinth of unending dark hallways that stretch for impossible distance is actually done very well making for arguably the best part of the film). When it is forced to show its cards it reveals many fine one hundred foot bugs, but ultimately no one thousand foot bugs.
Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely commend The Vic- you know what fuck it, for having the guts to show its stuff. Say what you will about it but Grave Encounters ultimately serves up the steak with its sizzle. The staging is creative, the cast is committed and brings a genuine level of desperation to the whole thing. Its just that ultimately its scares are on the level of an above average screamer or Haunted House. It's a good B horror movie, as opposed to a great horror film. As it just so happens that’s exactly what a lot of people are looking for this time of year, and to them I give Grave Encounters my genuine enthusiastic endorsement. It’s clever, it’s well shot, it’ll make you jump... And it won’t leave a bruise.