In every found-footage movie I’ve ever seen, there comes a point when the scriptwriters, “cleverly” anticipating audience objections, have one of the characters demand something to the effect of “Why are you still filming, you freak?” There has not been a single instance in found-footage-movie history where someone has produced a satisfactory answer to that question. I would like to suggest that maybe in future films we should just skip that exchange and stipulate that someone will always be That Freak Who Keeps Filming.
I actually wasn’t going to watch Grave Encounters, mostly because of the whole found-footage thing. I am so done with found footage, Hollywood. Unless your name is actually Jaume Balagueró, please stop using it. The odds that you will actually do anything original or clever with it are vanishingly small.
However, both Unkle Lancifer from Kindertrauma and Andre from The Horror Digest reported that Grave Encounters was great fun, and I have a huge weakness for abandoned mental hospitals, so I queued it up on Netflix.
Right out of the starting gate, Grave charmed me with a hilariously spot-on parody of risible network reality-show intros. The basic plot of the film is that a team of “ghost hunters” – who don’t seem to actually believe in ghosts, but do any of them? – are filming a ghost-hunting reality show in the abandoned Collingwood (ha) mental hospital, the history of which seems to borrow pretty liberally from the “Asylum” episode of Supernatural. There’s some truly amusing setup in which they interview various people about ghostly goings-on (the gardener steadfastly denies having seen anything weird until he gets a cash payment, and then there are ghosts all over the place). Then they’re locked into the hospital for the night, which turns out to be a bad move.
The first hints of weird happenings are both relatively subtle and great fun – things move when people’s backs are turned, doors slam unexpectedly, and so forth. Then the haunting stuff started in earnest, and I was reminded of the second reason I don’t like found-footage movies: they mostly involve running and screaming (the characters) and motion sickness (me).
What I saw of it after that was pretty good. There were places where the special effects fell down a bit – the ghost photos had more of gravy than of grave about them, and one guy apparently dies when he’s thrown down a hallway at a speed and distance that wouldn’t have seriously injured me, let alone a man half again my size. But the actual ghosts are fun and creepy, the group’s descent into the freakout zone is well paced, and the show’s host (Sean Rogerson) shows a reserve of spine and determination entirely unexpected from someone who does reality shows for a living. I think I would really have enjoyed it if the camera work hadn’t made me as sick as a dog.
So what’s the verdict? Honestly? It depends on how prone you are to motion sickness. There were some good scares, some clever shots, a funny send-up of the reality-show industry, and fewer unlikeable characters than one might expect. On the other hand, it almost made me lose my lunch. If you get motion sick, I can’t entirely recommend it; at the least, you’ll need to start pacing yourself with the amount of time you actually spend looking at the movie fairly early on. I’m giving the movie three stars on its own merits, because if you can overlook the nausea it induces it’s a pretty fun movie. If you’re easily nauseated, though, knock off a star and weigh costs versus benefits carefully. Or at least take Dramamine first.