Review: Grave Encounters (2011)
Horror Movie Mini-Review by Zeus | 2014-05-18
When Ghost Hunters became the Syfy channel's highest rated show, knock-offs were inevitable. And the best, or at least the most entertaining, was Ghost Adventures. Host Zak Bagans brought two things to the table: An attitude that told ghosts, "Come at me, Bro!" and the gimmick of being locked inside overnight with no chance of escape, as if to put his team at risk from being torn limb from limb by ghosts. So far, that has yet to happen. Grave Encounters gives us all what we've been waiting for.
This is a near-perfect satire of Ghost Adventures, right down to the prima donna host, Lance (Sean Rogerson). In the opening scene, a grim-faced producer informs us that Lance's team met their fate while investigating Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, a labyrinth of brick walls covered in chipped paint, strewn with abandoned medical equipment. The recovered footage is mostly behind the scenes stuff, with Lance dropping his true believer façade between takes. (When a gardner doesn't have any anecdotes, the host bribes him for a campfire tale.) In another nod to Ghost Adventures, Lance has the groundskeeper lock them inside Collingwood. He explores the building with Houston (Mackenzie Gray), a phony psychic who looks like Iggy Pop. Huston wanders around, regurgitating spooky backstory fed to him by Lance. After a night's work, they have little to show for themselves, other than a door slamming behind cameraman T.C. (Merwin Mondesir, running on Black Guy Autopilot). Collingwood appears to be a paranormal dead zone.
While the team packs up the gear, their techie goes missing. Lance suggests they wait it out for dawn... but dawn never comes. Surely, their watches must have stopped, because here it is, 3PM and still dark out. When the team arranges a search party, they encounter their first real evidence of the supernatural. It's all very subtle: cold spots, unexplained noises, and gothy Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko) has her hair pulled by an invisible force. This is the kind of stuff you expect to see on a paranormal investigation show, but the hosts react with equal parts incredulity and terror. They're used to faking this stuff, not filming it. After another sleepless night with no contact from the outside world, T.C. freaks out and tries break down the front door. And this is where the movie takes a turn for the truly memorable.
If you don't want the movie spoiled, you can quit reading now, safe in the knowledge that this movie is at least worth a watch. The team breaks down the front door, only to discover that the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital has undergone some rather expansive renovations, swallowing the world whole. When they try to make their way to an upper floor window -- the only one not covered in bars -- they're stopped in their tracks by a roof access stairway that ends after the second floor. Time goes funny. The food they brought rots and writhes with maggots. The bottled water will last longer, but for how long? This sprawling nightmare, straight out of House of Leaves, Silent Hill and Rose Red, is the best part of the movie.
But dreams never last, and neither do nightmares. Once the phony psychic Houston dies, all that clever energy goes right out the window. It's not even that he was that great a character (none of them are, really). It's that his death is a clear turning point, signaling the end of everything I liked about Grave Encounters. The movie starts out as clever satire, takes an unexpected turn towards existential horror, and then inexplicably resorts to a collection of high energy cliches and confession cam padding. Grave Encounters built up a treasure trove of atmosphere, only to blow it all on eye-rolling scares. It was bad enough when a bald mental patient chases after the crew and beats on their door like a rage zombie. But just when you think the scene couldn't get any worse, Lance picks up a pipe and starts scrapping with the guy, or demon, or whatever, I don't really care anymore. The first two thirds of Grave Encounters are full of smart touches, like a perfectly rational reason to keep filming terrifying events (the cameras are their only light source). But once it got to the silly last act, I started to wish I was watching an episode of Ghost Adventures.Review Score: 3/5.