The era of found footage films is in full flux right now. The surprisingly successful Paranormal Activity series, which has grossed almost $300 million dollars domestically, or The Blair Witch Project that grossed over $154 million dollars are both prime examples of this phenomena (no pun intended). Found footage films are successful because to be honest, they’re scary as hell, whether you want to believe it or not. It’s not always such a conscious recognition of the fear, but you have to admit that after you watch a Paranormal Activity movie, you tend to find yourself double-taking a little more than you usually do.
Recently, a film called Grave Encounters, which garnered positive reception at the Tribeca Film Festival, hit On-Demand as well as video stores soon after its initial festival run. The film, which was directed by The Vicious Brothers (who are neither brothers nor have the last name Vicious) for under $500,000, follows a camera crew who host a show called Grave Encounters, an intentional spoof of the popular show, Ghost Adventures. They decide to do what’s called a lock-down, a familiar procedure among fans of Ghost Adventures. The location? An abandoned mental institution that still maintains upkeep for some unknown reason. I presumed tours at first, but since there was no mention of this, I had nothing to go off.
The show, which is hosted by ghost expert Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) and teched by his crew T.C. (Merwin Mondesir), Matt (Juan Riedinger), and Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko), was in the middle of filming its first season when they decided to shoot in the location. Accompanied by “ghost expert” Houston Gray (Mackenzie Gray), the crew gets ready to go nowhere for an entire night of the hauntings that await them.
Grave Encounters makes it very clear that the entire “paranormal television” era is completely a sham, and that even the cast and crew don’t believe what they’re filming, which makes what they’re encountering that much more surprising. For the first 45 or so minutes, nothing too crazy happens. Tension is built amateurishly and then given up on just as quickly. If you decide to go and watch this movie, get used to the whole “so-much-tension-for-nothing” feel of the movie, because that’s the entire movie. In fact, anything resembling a good scare happens in the last half hour, and if you watched the first twenty minutes, and then skipped it to about 55 minutes, you really wouldn’t miss anything, I promise.
At 95 minutes, Grave Encounters is actually a tad longer than most other found-footage films, but half as scary, and most of the time, twice as boring. As I mentioned before, nothing scary happens until the last 30 minutes, and even then, it’s not the kind of scary that stays with you for weeks and weeks upon end, but rather a more instant jump followed by possibly a nervous giggle, and then it’s completely forgotten mere minutes later. The directors, who also penned the script, set up every scare so uniformly that when the punchline to this bad joke finally comes, you feel like it’s something you’ve heard, or in this case, seen, a million times before.
That’s not to say that Grave Encounters doesn’t have its moments. The surprisingly committed performance by the lead, Sean Rogerson, drives the film very well. He plays the part of the “ghost expert” perfectly, investing us into the story as he would in an episode of his show. The rest of the cast falters in comparison, though, except for Juan Riedenger, who plays Matt, the most Canadian character in this horror film made north of the border. His eventual slip into deep psychosis is enough reason to watch this movie for just that alone.
The lack of believable acting is what sets this film and other films like it (Paranormal Entity) apart from great found footage films. The acting is what turns the film from entertaining into believable. For months after seeing movies like The Fourth Kind and the Blair Witch Project, I was absolutely convinced that the things I was seeing on screen were as real as it could get. I honestly thought that Blair Witch was a documentary.
As a horror film, Grave Encounters fails, and almost miserably at that. I’m the type of person who s**** their pants when they see one of those scary videos on YouTube, and not even the barrage of stuff popping out during the last 30 minutes could scare me, let alone entertain me. It’s almost depressing that in a genre of film that is so easy to scare with, Grave Encounters can’t even do its one job right, which is a shame considering the massive amount of potential it had.