As Grave Encounters begins, a TV producer is being interviewed about a program that’s about to air. He’s speaking very seriously, letting us know that, despite our doubts, this is the real deal, exactly as it was found, with nothing edited—except what was necessary for time constraints. The program is episode 6 of a paranormal investigation show called, you guessed it, Grave Encounters. The show stars Lance Preston—a slick, smooth-talking host, concerned more with the quality of his looks than the show. He’s the type of guy who could sell a car as easily as host a show.
Lance (Sean Rogerson) is accompanied by three other pseudo-researchers—a camerawoman, Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko), a cameraman T.C. (Merwin Mordesir), and a technical equipment manager, Matt (Juan Riedinger). They’re all half-heartedly into the production, and, like Lance, seem more interested in hamming it up for the camera than finding ghosts. Yes, it’s a team of paranormal researchers who don’t expect to find what they’re looking for; they don’t even believe in ghosts. They just want the money that comes from producing such sensational shows. Imagine that! Already, we have the makings of a most realistic reality show.
Episode 6 begins with a slick, stylized opening, cutting to a sidewalk scene as unprofessional as it gets. Lance Preson, without haste, sets the foundation for the evening’s events—a night locked in the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, reputed to be haunted! Yes, you read that right—locked in a haunted hospital! “Stupid!” you say? Wait just a minute. This is sensational, it’s about money, and these researchers don’t believe in ghosts anyway.
Collingwood Hospital, as we learn from the local historian, was built in 1885 and closed in 1963. In 1948, it was the scene of a grisly murder; Arthur Friedkin, the head physician and resident lobotomist, was stabbed to death by several escaped patients. This, along with the usual legends of atrocities, makes Collingwood Hospital the stereotypic, if not obligatory setting for episode 6.
To stress the money-minded priority to trump up terror, Lance bribes a newly-employed gardener into making up a ghost story. There’s even the typical time-lapse scene of dark clouds rolling by, as darkness falls. We’ve seen it in a thousand times in other movies, and Lance does it for exactly that reason. He’s a cliché himself, willing to do anything that works. Even without ghosts, Lance says “We just wanna make sure we can get some good scares.”
Next, in true reality TV style, we have the arrival of Houston Grey—the Grave Encounters psychic medium, there to verify and validate what could otherwise be ridiculous. Houston is the typical but effective overwrought character whose cheesy appearance and comments are almost expected. In sunglasses and dressed in black, he’s a caricature of himself, and he knows it. As soon as he enters, he senses “a dark spirit or demon that you shouldn’t be messing with…at all!” Oh what irony there is in his theatrics!
Grave Encounters makes an academic distinction between “residual hauntings” and “intelligent hauntings.” A residual haunting is, so they say, “like an echo from the past, continuing to loop over and over again.” An intelligent haunting is “a spirit that interacts and has intention,” even, as reported, causing people to be pushed, scratched, or thrown. Further, we have the dreaded “full spectral apprarition.” This is a ghost that appears in full, visible form! Of course, we can only wonder which of these ghost combos may haunt Collingwood Hospital (wink, wink).
I admit that I began evaluating Grave Encounters on the basis of what I expected from a ghost-hunting mockumentary. I expected ghosts that cause the occasional opening door, the sometimes out of place item, sudden cold spot, or noise in the night—the type of subtle scares that are slight to moderate, but always effective. I expected what real ghost-hunting reality shows often find (or produce). Was I ever wrong? Yes! Grave Encounters has the kind of ghosts that dish out what I call “hard haunting.” (Yes, I coined a new term there!) They are physical manifestations of intangible entities, ready and willing to kick the butts of all who dare to doubt. They also take their sweet supernatural time doing it. Just when we think this movie might be a subtle snoozer, the haunting kicks into high gear and never slows down. Yes, there’s hardly time to hyperventilate between one demonic deed and the next!
As for exactly what happens inside the hospital, I’ll leave that for you to discover. Don’t worry; there’s still plenty to see. Or, maybe I should advise you to actually worry about that. I’ll only say that there’s a whole host of horrors as original as any I’ve seen anywhere. There’s a tongueless demon that, with the right exposure and screen time, could have been a new cult classic. There’s also a “demon girl” whose credit name is far too generic for her originality. She’s actually the scariest of ghosts you could see, if ghosts really ever look like her. Yes, the types of ghosts you see in Collingwood Hospital are the types you don’t live to tell tales about!
Found footage films, in general, have the burden of making us think they are real. Those about ghosts and other frightful things have the added burden of truly scaring us. Their success or failure can be all about this and little more. So, the obvious question is simple: Is Grave Encounters real enough, and is it really scary? My answer to both is like a “residual haunting.” Yes, yes, yes, and yes again! Its effect is “like an echo from the past, continuing to loop over and over again.” “What criteria or rubric do you use to gauge the fear factor?” you may say. I use the simplest of measuring methods—my gut reaction to what I see at the moment, as well as what I feel afterwards, when I should have forgotten most of it. More than once during and after Grave Encounters, I second guessed the safety of the darkness around me. I even, at least once, wondered whether the darkness may have actually moved, even when my common sense told me otherwise. No. It didn’t scare me to death. I didn’t have nightmares, and it didn’t make me permanently dysfunctional, giving me some phobia that few can pronounce. No movie could do that to me, so it’s not criteria for ratings. However, I did look over my shoulder, at least a few times, to double-check a “residual haunting” from Grave Encounters. So, for me, the movie passed the most important litmus test for found-footage ghost tales. It scared me!
Grave Encounters avoids mistakes many movies make by, as I mentioned earlier, locking the group in the hospital, at their request. It’s all done to add thrills, boost ratings, and yes, make more money. They can’t get out, even if they want to; since they don’t believe in ghosts anyway, they can’t imagine they’d ever need to get out. Even when the spirits are pissed, these paranormal pros are first looking for the pranksters, rather than looking for the money shot (or looking for a way to break the door down and get the #^% out). The demons also do their part to keep the crew looking smart, while keeping them in danger at the same time. (You’ll see what I mean.) Many movies make the characters pass up an opportunity for escape, making them look stupid; this movie doesn’t. In one scene, Sasha's response to Lance's bone-headed plan is possibly the smartest words ever uttered from a horror victim's mouth. For keeping the characters smart, Grave Encounters gets a well-deserved extra rocket.
As for original aspects, the one that stands out most is an odd but very effective temporal anomaly upon which I won’t spend further time (pun intended). I’ll only say that, as a coincidence (or so I think), this is oddly the longest review I’ve ever written. Will it ever end? What time is it? Wasn’t it that time 8 hours ago!
As for acting, it’s excellent! All actors do a professional job of making their characters seem as real as we’d expect ourselves to be in the same situation. They all have distinct, overconfident personalities that they play well; they also show the necessary and believable breakdown of character we expect from people getting a paranormal ass-kicking.
“What about the gore?” you say. It’s here, there, and everywhere! Once you get used to the “full spectral apparitions,” you should have no problem with any of it. For what is happening, it’s not overdone or underdone; there’s just the right amount of blood in the bloodbath, just the right amount being vomited, and just the right amount running from whatever places blood needs to run. There’s even an animal killing scene that’s real enough to make you look for the “no animals were harmed during the making of this motion picture” disclaimer at the end, just to be sure.
The cinematography is of the frenetic, shaky-cam type—the clichéd but necessary trademark of found-footage films, like it or not. Whereas this effect normally annoys me, I require it in these supposedly homemade films. After all, it’s become a fact that people making such movies don’t know how to hold a camera without shaking it. Try holding one while being chased by a ghost, and you’ve got a real excuse! There’s also good use of the green, night-vision filming now available on most consumer-level cameras. The greenish color alone is enough to make even the most benign of places look haunted. I’d remove a rocket, if such a movie didn’t go green at least once or twice.
“What about the running time?” I’m asking that question myself, since you probably won’t. It could be just right, too much, not enough, or maybe not at all! Therein again lies one of the most original things about Grave Encounters that may be even creepier than the ghosts! Even though I’ve mentioned it before, it bears repeating for reasons I’ll leave unexplained again. Don’t worry! If you watch the movie, you’ll have plenty of time to think about it…or will you? Or did you already?
Is Grave Encounters a perfect movie? No. It’s not perfect, but that’s never what I expect movies to be. Is it close to perfect? No. But, that’s also not what I expect most movies to be. Is it enough of everything it needs to be to do the job it sets out to do, while, at the same time, satisfying the average fan of such movies? Again, like a residual haunting, I say “Yes, yes, yes!” Grave Encounters is a kick-ass thrill ride, from beginning to end, with some of the most pulse-pounding premonitions this side of the solar system!
If you decide to watch Grave Encounters, don’t expect anything in particular. Leave your preconceived notions about ghost-hunting reality shows at the steps of the haunted asylum you plan to enter. Whether or not you think it passes the scare test on film, you’ll have to agree that you’d evacuate your bowels on the spot, if any such things ever happened to you. Imagine, for a moment, that you aren’t in the safety of your home, on your couch, with your dog, or whatever makes you feel detached from danger. Imagine, instead, that you are, like these sorry souls, in a haunted asylum with full spectral apparitions galore! Imagine that these demons are ready to make you bleed, scream, and die in the worst of ways. If you can be so humble, honest, and insecure, even for a moment, you might just find Grave Encounters making you more of the vulnerable little human you really are! Sitting on your couch, you might even enjoy it!