The Countess and I are big fans (and critics) of supernatural themed reality television, so we leaped at the chance to attend a preview screening of Grave Encounters, the first of many films I’ll be screening in my coverage of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. This film by the Canada-based “Vicious Brothers” is a contribution to what is now a well-established genre: the video updating of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds hoax, the conceit being extremely bizarre supernatural events are accidentally captured on home video, giving us the illusion of a heightened sense of realism. The previous high water marks of the genre (for better or worse) are The Blair Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield (2008) and Paranormal Activity (2010).
The technique provides thrills, but comes with limitations. Character development takes a back seat; it is extremely difficult to achieve when the story is being told in fragments of action that leave no room for organic exposition or the kind of emotional scenes people generally keep private, i.e. AWAY from video cameras. Also, the genre generally relies on a preposterous amount of first person narration, with characters grabbing cameras and talking directly to the audience in a manner I personally find difficult to credit. (Every character becomes Marlon Perkins: “The creature is right over there. Timothy hasn’t spoken in hours. We’re all so cold!”). While I found Blair Witch Project to be a complete turkey for these and other reasons, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity were able to transcend those drawbacks on sheer thrill power through special effects. In essence, amazing shit seems to be happening right before your very eyes. It’s real cinema magic.
Grave Encounters falls somewhere between the two camps, for me. Purporting to be raw footage from a crew shooting an episode of a Ghost Hunters style tv series, the film locks us into an abandoned insane asylum with the main characters and reports the haunting they witness. They are a cynical bunch (far more cynical and dishonest than I imagine most purveyors of such shows to be, but I can be a Pollyanna sometimes) and so they are as shocked as we are when real stuff begins to happen. It plays out effectively at first, but the film rapidly lost me. I am forever on the lookout for the perfect ghost-thrill-illusion experience…I don’t care if it’s from a movie or from a reality show. Forget the reality shows, of course. Not wanting to be exposed as frauds, for the most part they pretty much do stick to interpreting real phenomena, which turns out to be mundane. They are artful at teasing us, but the most I’ve ever seen on Ghost Hunters was a self-opening door, and even those DO happen naturally. Fiction films have less excuse for getting it wrong, but they always do. Paranormal Activity was one of the most effective I’ve seen, very slowly building the events, pointing towards a single, whiz bang money shot that blew my socks off.
Unfortunately Grave Encounters goes way too far and too fast. Before we know it, the characters are not only trapped in the insane asylum, but the building seems to be able to expand its unlit corridors to infinity, and though the ordeal spools out over several days, it never stops being night outside. In short, the characters are clearly all in hell, making their predicament hopeless, removing any suspense or dramatic tension from the story. This strips the experience down to a theme park ride, in fact, literally. It is just like the ride through the spook house, waiting for the next thing to pop out. There really is no story — we don’t know why, for example, the demons are tormenting these particular characters (others have been in the same building and only had minor encounters).
And frankly, I don’t know why every damn movie has to go stampeding all the way to devils and hell. What’s wrong with a ghost story? I still havent’t seen that done properly! Here, we witness a variety of phenomenon…invisible tormentors, mysterious mists, and so forth. But the few demons we encounter strike me as too vivid, too “material” to convince. The vague manifestation, the hazy floating shape that almost looks like a person….in short, the ghost…that’s what I want to see a lot more of. In the end, we are left with a single remaining character, who uncovers the root of all this chaos: signs of some Satanic ritual in the basement, a candle, a skull, a book with Runic writings. Clearly some fool has called up these devils. But the conceit struck me as merely silly, and that is why I don’t mind spoiling it for you. It has, after all, been done to death.
This is a lot of quibbles, but I won’t steer you wrong. These are criticisms from a big fan of this sort of thing and so I’m picky. If you buy a ticket, you certainly won’t be shortchanged on thrills. Even if it’s not much of a story or even a movie, it’s an effective amusement park ride and a decent head rush.