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Grave Encounters is a 2011 Canadian found-footage horror film, written and directed by The Vicious Brothers. The film is a collection of footage from the final episode of a fictional ghost hunting TV show called Grave Encounters, which was cancelled after airing its fifth episode. This sixth episode was never broadcast. The host and crew are investigating the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, a supposed hotbed for paranormal activity thanks to its tortured history. After touring the grounds during the day they have the groundskeeper lock them in, from sundown until 6:00 AM, as they begin their mission to capture footage ghostly activity.

When I first heard about this film a few years ago I was both excited and wary of what to expect from it. What first caught my attention was a scene from the trailer of a ghostly woman with a distorted face screaming into the camera. This image circulated enough that I’m sure anyone who has even just heard of the movie has seen the image. This produced mixed feelings in me because I saw it as an indicator of one of two things: either the scene is meant to draw people into a deeper movie, or the movie was going to be a jump-scare noise-fest.

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While I do find the image to be quite frightening, there is no denying how cheap it looks as well. It has the production quality feel of a web series, rather than a feature length film, and is in fact utilizing a scare tactic I’ve seen before in short jump-scare videos on YouTube. This fueled my concern.

I was thrilled to find that the movie had a lot more to it than distorted faces, loud noises, and jump-scares. The movie uses the found-footage subgenre superbly, creating a premise that I found very believable. I understand why these people are there, and why they keep filming, which is something a lot of found-footage struggles with.

Instead of a swift descent into paranormal mayhem, the film uses its setup to slowly build things up. Much of the preamble pokes a lot of fun at ghost hunting shows, showing the host paying off “witnesses,” utilizing a fake medium to add a little theatrics, and speaking with a cheesy intensity worthy of such a show from the early 2000s. This slow build, where much of the crew is disappointed to encounter nothing at first, contrasts well with the horror coming their way.

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Amusingly, once things start becoming real it still slowly progresses, continuing to foreshadows what is to come. They become excited, staying in character as they capture legitimate paranormal activity. The situation eventually escalates to levels I didn’t expect, creating great atmosphere and a more terrifying scenario. What I didn’t expect was just how much the location itself would play a role. While an abandoned asylum speaks for itself as a chilling location, the way the movie used it was what affected me the most. I realized what was really going on alongside the characters as things began to escalate, the story taking a more complicated turn than I had anticipated.

While there are a number of instances of distorted screaming faces, they are used conservatively, rather than over-saturating the movie. There are plenty of subtler, creepy effects and occurrences peppered throughout that give the film’s scares a lot of variety. While the story gives enough detail to foreshadow some particular events, not very much is explained about why this asylum is haunted the way that it is, leaving out a lot of details to tantalize the imagination.

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The found-footage genre often gets a bum wrap, and understandably so since its low budget nature and penchant for jump-scares often gets exploited. Grave Encounters is definitely one worth checking out, however. It understands the better ways to utilize the found-footage style to depict a deeply creepy and surprisingly atmospheric haunting.

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