It’s getting increasingly difficult to keep the found footage style fresh and Grave Encounters proves it. While the film does have a rather unique tone in terms of how it blends horror and comedy, ultimately, it’s a recycling of past shaky cam-style films. Then again, there’s a reason this horror sub-genre is plagued with pieces that use and reuse; it’s because it works.
“Grave Encounters” is a promising new ghost-hunting reality TV show. Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) and his crew have successfully completed five episodes and are now moving onto their sixth, focusing on the old Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. They start the day by exploring the grounds safely in the daylight, but come nightfall, voluntarily lock themselves into the facility for the duration of the shoot. They set up shop in the hospital’s lobby and plant cameras throughout the building after which Lance and the group trek through the hallways filming something that well, looks creepy, but isn’t the least bit haunted.
To the group’s surprise and delight, as the hours pass, strange things really do start to happen. Thrilled to have something that’s seemingly real to put into their episode, they trounce around trying to rile up whatever spirits they think they’ve discovered. However, their fun and excitement turns to sheer terror as the hours pass, the facility caretaker never returns to let them out and they discoverer their new ghostly friends have a violent side.
It seems like just yesterday we were talking about found footage films and maybe that’s because we were. So, like in my review of Trollhunter, I must ask again, is Grave Encounters just another found footage film? Yes and, like in Trollhunter’s case, Grave Encounters puts the style’s functionality to use, however, unlike Trollhunter, it does so in a rather routine way. Grave Encounters simply borrows from its predecessors. Like Paranormal Activity, the story deals with paranormal entities that open and close windows while the camera is rolling and like in The Blair Witch Project, it turns the location into a seemingly never ending and inescapable nightmare. Then again, unlike those films, Grave Encounters takes it one step beyond by actually showing you the ghosts and occasionally, it’s quite terrifying.
As unoriginal as the whole concept is, the directing duo, The Vicious Brothers, manages to create some pretty creepy visuals. A few are incapable of achieving the intended effect, specifically a moment where giant black hands unconvincingly come through a wall, but there are also a bunch that’ll be engrained in your mind long after the credits roll, namely the shock at getting a glimpse of a ghostly patient with ever-increasing black holes for eyes.
Beyond the effects, what both makes and breaks the film are the characters. In attempt to mock ghost-hunting reality shows, as a host, Lance is incredibly irritating. His presentation isn’t sincere in the least and he’s willing to do just about anything to make “Grave Encounters” a hit, even if it comes down to falsifying interviews. However, Rogerson’s ability to transform Lance from a greedy, fame hungry show host into a compassionate guy determined to save his team is incredibly endearing and convincing. Unfortunately, in the end, The Vicious Brothers take it one step too far by having Lance indulge in a little something that’s so absurd it’s unintentionally laughable.
While the rest of the characters may not have as big of an arc, everyone gets their moment and the entire cast seizes the opportunity. Just about everyone except for Lance and Houston Gray (Mackenzie Gray), a guy who can supposedly communicate with the dead, is quite likeable. Cameraman T.C. (Merwin Mondesir) gets the added bonus of having a family, so when his life is threatened, the stakes are sky high. As for Matt, the group tech whiz, Juan Riedinger seem to have had a grand old time with the role, making Matt an charming and fun loving character at the start and then taking him to the extreme in the tail end of the film. Lastly there’s Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko) and as the group’s sole female member, she instantly earns a great deal of sympathy when things start to turn to the dark side. Plus, her reaction to the strange happenings is entirely natural. She doesn’t opt to dig deeper and investigate when she gets a little too close to a ghost, rather retreat to their lobby-based HQ and simply wait it out until morning.
Ultimately, Grave Encounters is a noble effort, but feels a bit like a cheap shot. The cinematography and performances are quite good, but we’ve basically seen this all before. It is unsettling and terrifying at times, but only because The Vicious Brothers resort to tactics that have worked in the past. Grave Encounters is a scary and enjoyable experience, but in the end, never having gotten anything new is a bit frustrating, especially when it seems as though The Vicious Brothers really do have more to offer.