GRAVE ENCOUNTERS was the reality show to end all reality shows – years ahead of its time. It’s a ghost hunting endeavor – one that went so far in its sixth episode that uncovered such a violently present haunting that the show ended right then and there. Why? Because Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) and his team of paranormal detectives (which include yummy Ashleigh Gryzko, and a snooze saving performance by Houston Gray) found what they were looking for when they entered the closed down Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital for a locked in, overnight campout, and were never heard from again. Don’t believe it? Watch the raw footage, as reluctantly presented to you by the show’s producer, and see for yourself what happened.
So what’s the general story here? This team of spectral sleuths lock themselves in for the night with the cameras and equipment – chained in by the caretaker himself – with an understanding that he would return the following morning at 6AM to set them free, footage (or lack of) and all. Given a tour of the place before lockdown, the team (and the audience) is shown several reputed hotspots within the facility (such as a third floor window that has been known to open on its own certain nights), and a bloodstained bathtub where a patient had committed suicide. Once a home for some of the country’s worst psychiatric cases, it was shut down after some of the patients rebelled and killed its primary doctor – a man who mercilessly performed experimental brain surgeries without check or remorse. “X” marks the spots, night vision cameras are put into place, and the long, long night begins…
Without spoiling what you don’t already get from the trailer itself, all Hell breaks loose, and they get much more than they had bargained for. One by one the team begins to go missing, or experience nightmarish hauntings until they’re on their heels, begging for the morning to come. When 6AM passes, and the skies are still dark at 1PM the following day, they realize they have entered something possibly inescapable. There are, of course, the underground tunnels that are said to lead to other buildings in the compound, but with their batteries near death, there is virtually no light to guide them – and who wants to go down there after what they’ve already seen and heard?
GRAVE ENCOUNTERS is a fun film – equivalent to a quality haunted house attraction at an amusement park that’s better enjoyed with friends than alone – as the witty banter and first person immersion are at their peaks here. But as fun as it was, it could have been so much more. All the elements are in place, but amateurish mistakes and force-fed fear end up draining what could have been the sleeper horror hit of the year. It leaves you with a corpse of an experience that wears its scares on its sleeve so much so that it leaves nothing for your own heart to pump.
The cinema verite horror pic is the latest in a tidal wave of mockumentary films that bites off so many of the “new wave” styles that unfortunately, as fun as it is at times, ends up feeling a bit more like a faded carbon copy of that which we have seen so often before. As undercutting as it can be to compare a new film to others before it in order to give you a perspective, you’ll be hard pressed not to recognize the widespread homage and influence going on here – inflicting memories of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, to say the least (and not their best aspects either). The constant, overwhelming screaming, shaky cameras and self awareness, along with the night vision has all been used before.
The directors even went so far to admit at the 2011 Tribeca FF premiere that they wanted to sort of recreate what you get on SyFy’s “GHOST HUNTERS”, only instead of wandering halls listening for noises that translate to near nothing but fear, they trade that faux fear for money shots. They deliver instant gratification, trying to give you the end result of what you’re hoping to see in such a show: heightened scares.
Final analysis: Like a high school Halloween party, just leave your brain at the door, let go and you may have some fun. There’s a lot of potential in this film, and yet, as much as I enjoyed it, you could poke holes in it forever. So what’s the problem when the film is a hotbed of spectral activity; a ghosts haunting in a mental institution, served up reality show style? It’s the little teenage emo directors (say it with me, with some bite – grrr) known as The Vicious Brothers, whom fall into that age-old trap of having to just about explain EVERYTHING to you – to the point of leaving nearly nothing to your imagination. Even the exposition heavy dialogue attempts to explain everything: “Did you hear that?” “Did you see that?” “Oh my God, wasn’t that scary?” No need to get scared or tense here, the actors and actresses do it all for you (not to undercut their performances). But much like a joke, if it has to be explained to you, it’s just not funny.