Saturday, October 20, 2012

30 Days of Nightmares #24: GRAVE ENCOUNTERS (2011)

The Story: The makers of a cheesy reality TV ghost-hunting series get trapped in a genuinely haunted asylum.

Expectations: Full disclosure: I worked on a reality TV ghost series.  It wasn't a "real" time, ghost-hunting show, but rather a docu-drama format.  The way I always looked at it, we were making mini horror movies based on first-person accounts.  "Based on," of course, is a tricky phrase.  I've read accounts -- some from people who claim to have been closely involved with the production of the series -- that the stories were entirely fictional and the on-camera interviewees were actors.  For the record, that's not true.  The interviewees were real people, and every single scene was constructed around details they provided to us.  We made storytelling decisions, of course, that heightened the drama within those scenes.  Camerawork, art direction, acting, editing (soundbite selection + general pacing), music and sound design make all the difference between something that's scary and something that isn't.  The hard part was getting all of those elements to work in the same scene.  We had some successes and some failures.

I've never been a fan of the "ghost hunting" shows, because I feel certain that they require more embellishment.  The producers don't get to cherry-pick their stories or their moments.  They pick a location and then they have to hope that something scary happens in the moment, while they're filming.  I know enough about network executives to know that most won't be satisfied with campfire storytelling and moody shots of empty hallways.  What that means is that, if nothing interesting happens, the producers must make it happen.  I've always imagined that ghost-hunting shows are put together the same way that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was put together.  The producers send in their on-camera talent and tell them to film everything.  The talent has only a rough idea of what to expect.  Behind the scenes, the producers orchestrate a "haunting" that will prompt spontaneous reactions from those on camera.

Maybe I'm not giving these shows enough credit.  Maybe I'm being just as prejudiced about them as so many people are about the show I worked on.  Whatever the case, I figured that GRAVE ENCOUNTERS -- a completely fictional story masquerading as reality TV -- would use this technique to deliver what the execs really want.

Reaction: In spite of its cool SESSION 9 setting, the first half hour of this movie drove me crazy.  For me, it was even more annoying than the reality shows because the characters here are so insincere.  Their insincerity serves a storytelling purpose of course: It made me wish for the ghosts to come along and kick the shit out of the ghost hunters.  Effectively eerie static shots of dark, empty rooms promised that it was only a matter of time.  (In fact, those static shots with no actors were the scariest scenes in the first part of the movie.  They offered reassurance that the filmmakers are interested in creating some real suspense.)

To their credit, the characters become a bit more likable once weird things start to happen.  They react in a believable way -- which means they talk a lot, and loudly.  Think about it: If silence is what scares you, you want to get rid of it.  I remember Lance Henriksen once said to me that as a child he fought fear by making himself "bigger than the monster."  That's what these characters are trying to do, and it works -- at least it did for me.  In the second act of the movie, my anticipation and anxiety was genuine.  The filmmakers kept me engaged by adding some sci-fi elements to what I thought would be a straightforward ghost story.

The third act elevated the drama big time.  About thirty minutes from the end of the film, there's a scene that begins just like the final scene in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.  The BLAIR WITCH scene was played entirely for suspense, without payoff.  PARANORMAL ACTIVITY one-upped it but adding an immediate payoff.  GRAVE ENCOUNTERS goes further.  The entire third act is a payoff: wall-to-wall ghosts doing very nasty things.  Some of the scares work brilliantly -- there are a few genuinely startling images that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  Some scenes, however, are so over-the-top silly that they completely shatter the illusion.  And others seem indiscriminately added to the mix as homages (to REPULSION and THE TINGER, among others).

In general, I believe that where ghost stories are concerned, less is more because believability is key.  Not everyone shares that philosophy... A lot of people (some of them network executives) simply say that more is more.  They prefer a slasher movie approach to ghost stories: hit the audience with everything you've got.  That's what GRAVE ENCOUNTERS does in the third act... and you know what?  It sort of works.  It wouldn't have worked in the first act.  It wouldn't have worked in the second act.  It doesn't work consistently in the third act (like I said, some moments are so silly that they operate more like comic relief)... but I have to credit The Vicious Brothers with knowing their craft.  The understand the principle of escalation, and they instinctively knew that -- under the right circumstances at the right time -- they could get away with more than this viewer would have guessed.

I would have argued that once you go over the top, you can't return to suspense, but the third act of this movie illustrates the alternative rollercoaster theory of horror.  It's a pure, dumb thrill ride -- up and down, up and down -- and it's effective precisely because it's so hysterically unrelenting.  

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: That girl-in-the-corner scene is the real turning point, but there are plenty of jump scares, bolstered by unsettling visual effects.  They might not stay with you once the movie's over, but they certainly get the adrenaline flowing in the moment.


  1. Joe,

    I have to agree with you on this one as well. The first part of the film almost made me turn it off, but once we got past that part of the film, it turned out to be something that I really enjoyed. I've seen enough of these movies where nothing was new or scary to me, but I am sure it will make some people jump watching it. A few of the scenes where unexpected though, but all in all, it was a film I enjoyed and ended up purchasing.

    Have you seen Grave Encounters 2? I'd like to get your thoughts on that one as well..basically the same formula.

  2. Troy - I was genuinely surprised that I liked this one, so I will probably give the sequel a shot when it's on DVD... I'm encouraged by the fact that The Vicious Brothers were also involved with the sequel.

  3. Anonymous12/06/2012

    I could not sleep. That's the fact. Whole movie shook me .