Grave Encounters (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A team of paranormal investigators (Sean Rogerson, Juan Riedinger, Ashleigh Gryzko, Mackenzie Gray, Merwin Mondesir) spend eight hours in Collingwood, a former mental hospital with a history of inhumane experimental surgeries performed by the lead doctor (Arthur Corber), for the sixth episode of their television show. Lance (Rogerson), the host, is ecstatic with the idea and cannot wait to explore the labyrinthine hallways and tunnels. He asks Kenny (Bob Rathie), the caretaker, to lock his team inside from midnight until eight o’clock in the morning. At first, the closest they get to a paranormal event is hearing noises in the old pipes. But once they decide that they have recorded enough to make a creepy episode, the ghosts begin to really play with their guests.
Written and directed by The Vicious Brothers, “Grave Encounters” uses the found footage technique as a template but it stands out from its contemporaries. Despite the template, it is clear that event we are watching is not real. As a result, it is able to make fun of its sub-genre as well as going all the way in attempting to create an uneasiness in our gut.
The first act is very amusing. The so-called paranormal investigators are a bunch of charlatans. I loved the scene when Lance asks the Mexican gardener (Luis Javier) if he has seen any ghosts. The gardener says that he has not because he has been hired just recently, so flatly and so dryly, it is impossible not to laugh at the failed interview. Then the guy is offered twenty dollars to pretend that he has seen a ghost. He embraces Lance’s leading questions but his delivery remains flat so it is not at all convincing.
After sunset, the film tone’s is heavier. The writer-directors take their time to instill fear in the viewers which is necessary. A few minutes after the characters are locked in, I was not yet cowering in my seat because the funny bits were still fresh in my mind. But since there is a defined transition between comedy and horror, when the ghosts do begin to manifest themselves and chase the characters up and down the corridors, it feels like we are a part of their experience.
Still, the scares are not consistent. The cameraman’s (Mondesir) explosive anger is often a distraction, turning our dread into irritation. While his frustration is understandable initially, there is no need to keep raising his voice because everyone else is as confused and scared as him.
The best part of the film involves the team searching for Matt (Riedinger), the guy in charge of the nifty gadgets, who has disappeared while collecting cameras he has placed on each floor. Since they are looking for a friend who might be injured, they figure they have no choice but to search every room. Every turn of the camera to inspect a specific corner is a potential jump-out-of-your-seat moment. They are used sparingly but just enough not to suffer from diminishing returns.
“Grave Encounters” contains a number of different types of scares. Some may be more effective than others but I admired that with each passing minute, the stakes are that much higher. Found footage movies are prevalent these days. But found footage movies with ambition, imagination, and good scares are few and far between.