|release date||March 27 2007|
|writer||Brad Keene and Chris Skinner|
|starring||Dominic Purcell, Josie Maran, Tcheky Karyo, Claire Kramer, Marcus Thomas and Megahn Perry|
|trailer 1||Trailer #1|
You know, as a horror nut and an indie sympathizer I get saddled with sitting through a LOT of crap. That’s just part of the ballgame. Sure, there are always a few thrilling diamonds in the rough – but for every “Open Water” or “May”, there are at least 100 misguided atrocities just waiting to destroy your faith in indie filmmaking forever. And really thinking about the long-term prospects for horror film can damn near break your spirit – the post-slasher generation has yet to stake its claim and truly redefine the genre, resulting in our theatres and video stores being stuffed with artless, cheapie ripoffs, bloated studio hybrids, and needless remakes, none of which have much respect for the craft of scary storytelling (“scarytelling”?).
So when a movie like Mike Mendez’s “The Gravedancers” comes along, it’s like a breath of fresh, damp, richly-scented cemetery air. This movie totally impressed me on almost every level. From the brutal, shocking opening scene through the effects-laden finale, this is indie filmmaking the likes of which we seldom see. The script is fresh and clever, the performances are surprisingly solid (these are characters, not caricatures), the production values are impossibly high, the score is gorgeous, and the direction and editing are clean, purposeful, and at times cracklingly effective. If you’re sick of plotless wink-wink horror movies stuffed with disposable teens and throwaway villains and prefer your horror to be smart, well-composed and just a bit mean, then “The Gravedancers” is for you. If not, well… is “Venom” on video yet?
Dominic Purcell (of “Prison Break” and “Blade: Trinity”) plays Harris McKay, a successful lawyer who lives with his wife Allison (Clare Kramer, who played Glory on “Buffy”) in wedded bliss. But when an old friend dies in a car crash and Harris is reunited with his old college pals Kira (Josie Maran) and Sid (Marcus Thomas), their life together turns from from paradise to paranormal. Kira, Harris, and Sid visit their pal’s grave in the middle of the night, drink and reminisce, and find a strange greeting card with an oddly inspiring poem. Caught up in the moment and the spirit of the words, the group reads the poem aloud and dances to a boombox in tribute to their friend and the time they have left together. Little do they know, the words on the toxic Hallmark card were not harmless sentiments, and they’ve accidentally activated an ancient “gravedancing curse” that will make their lives a living hell.
Things start quietly enough, with a few strange sounds here and there and the tendency of doors to open and close on their own. But soon there’s someone playing the piano when no one’s in the living room and a strange, delirious woman appears in their bedroom, and then vanishes into thin air. When Harris and Allison contact the others to see if they are screwing with them (Kira apparently had a bit of a tendency to stalk Harris before he married Allison), they find that Kira has been beaten and assaulted almost to death in her trashed house, and Sid has a team of paranormal scientists in his apartment investigating a series of spontaneous fires that spring up out of nowhere. In short, these folks are haunted.
As the three gravedancers (along with Allison) begin to grasp the gravity of the situation (they’ve disturbed the spirits upon whose graves they danced, and now those three ghosts have one lunar cycle to get back at them), the attacks become more frequent and more violent, and the bond among the three reunited friends gives way to old jealousies and petty rivalry. The paranormal experts might have a way to reverse the curse – but will they complete the ritual in time, and will it even work? As things get more desperate and the spirits get stronger, things get far more complicated than expected – soon enough there are explosions, crashes, flying objects, possessions, and enough assorted supernatural goings on to put Hell House to shame.
“Gravedancers” has a lot of things going for it. For one, it’s a “grown-up” horror movie that trades in vacuous bowling-pin teens for slightly older, more fleshed-out characters. Don’t worry – they’re just as hot as their empty-headed counterparts (I mean, really – Josie Maran? Dominic Purcell? Plenty of eye-candy to be had here.), but they’re also about 20 times more complex and likeable than your standard horror victims. The actors are asked to go through some pretty rough shit – and for the most part, their reactions to the increasingly bizarre things happening to them are incredibly realistic. Kramer and Maran are particularly good at reacting to the batshit supernatural happenings – there’s a nice balance of sensible curiosity and legitimate panic that is immediately endearing. Purcell is a grounding force as the somewhat inexpressive, stubborn Harris (his character was the first to settle down, after all), and the more colorful characters play off him nicely.
For another, the production values are sky-high. From the haunting, lush score to the impressive locations and camerawork to the bone-jarring stunts and freaky creature work, this movie looks fantastic. When the shit really hits the fan near the end, they do some major property damage, which is always a hell of a lot of fun to watch. They certainly don’t cut any corners on stunt work (there are some poltergeist-related smackdowns that will make you wince), and there’s even some much-welcomed creature design snuck in near the end that’s wonderfully creepy. The only times that the illusion is broken are, of course, when CGI rears its ugly, pixellated head near the end – but honestly, when is that NOT the case? I can appreciate that some practical effects are simply too costly (or just plain impossible) to do, and if CGI is the only way to connect the dots, I can understand that. It is a shame, though – for the first hour things are damn-near pitch-perfect.
The only negative things I have to say about the flick is that it’s just a wee bit too long (it does get a little draggy and repetitive in the last half-hour) and nobody gets naked. But hey – I’d happily take a smart, fresh script, assured direction and a great cast over some skin anyday. Fans of spooker classics like “Poltergeist”, “Legend of Hell House”, and even “The Entity” (there’s even a bit of an “Evil Dead” finale reference at the end) will find “Gravedancers” right up their alley, and likely find this story to be a unique and fun addition to the subgenre. I for one am glad I had the chance to check this flick out (courtesy of the film’s wolrd premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival), and hope it finds it audience far and wide.