Posts Tagged ‘ghosts’

I have an enormously, wretchedly conflicted relationship with the Conjuring franchise.

On one hand, I love everything about the first movie.  Ghost stories are my favorite of basically any kind of narrative ever, and I adored just about every detail of The Conjuring – from the glorious Lili Taylor and her sympathetic family, to the amazing bond of love and faith between Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, to the completely believable performances from everyone involved, to the sheer creepiness at every turn.  I have watched The Conjuring a dozen times and I never get tired of it.

On the other hand, all this love for the first movie doesn’t play well with my utter blood-in-the-eyes rage at the fact that Ed and Lorraine Warren are (or were, in Ed’s case) real people who made their living selling vulnerable, frightened, superstitious people a crock of particularly evil bullshit.  It’s really almost exactly like watching a movie that casts an amazing actor in the role of Donald Trump and takes enough storytelling liberties to turn him into a deeply sympathetic and lovable character, possibly saving kittens from trees and single-handedly preventing 9/11.  As much as you might adore the character onscreen, you can’t get around the fact that it’s supposed to be Donald fucking Trump, and the cognitive dissonance is not pleasant.

So it was with trepidation that I queued up The Conjuring 2.  Would it, like The Conjuring, be awesome enough to make me forget I was watching a whitewashing of the Donald and Melania Trump of the paranormal world?  Could my heart-deep love for Farmiga and Wilson in anything they do keep my “BUT ACTUALLY NO” rage in check for 134 minutes?

Well, the answer is yes and no.

The whole thing with the Amityville Horror tie-in just pissed me off, as Amityville Horror related things are wont to do.  Because: you know who else were real people?  The DeFeos.  And an unfathomably horrible thing happened to them, and they still have living family who lost loved ones, and those children who were gunned down in their beds by their own brother deserve better than to be a punchline or a plot device.  You want to talk about the Lutzes and their campaign to bilk the mortgage company out of an astronomical loan?  Open season.  Have at it.  But for fuck’s sake have the decency to leave real-life murdered children, real little corpses buried in real graves, out of it.

Eventually, though, the Amityville nonsense went away, and I was reminded of how in love I am with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and the amazing relationship between their characters.  Basically, Patrick Wilson did an Elvis impersonation and sang “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” and Vera Farmiga stared at him all melty-eyed, and that was it for my resistance.

Oh, wait.  There was a plot here.  And to be honest, it wasn’t that awesome a plot.  There was a nun whose scariness seemed limited to glaring at people, and a Crooked Man whose scariness was limited to, I guess, snarling at people, and a hapless old dude, and a foreboding-looking tree trunk of the Poltergeist variety.  There’s also the whole story of the Enfield Poltergeist, which is mostly just an unconvincing frame for Vera Farmiga vanquishing a demon.  The plot was okay, I guess, but not a patch on the first movie.  Also, if I were Vera Farmiga, I would have beaten the living fuck out of a husband who chose the life of a random kid who was probably faking it over our daughter’s right to grow up with her father.  All in all, it was fine, but not a patch on The Conjuring.

So what’s the verdict?  Three stars.  It just barely kept me from projectile-vomiting rage blood all over my TV at the sheer assholery of the real-life Warrens.  A tiny bit less well-crafted, cast with actors the smallest bit less talented and believable, and this would have been an utter exploitative cluster-fuck of a movie.  James Wan seems to have a gift for crafting movies that avoid catastrophe by the narrowest of margins, and this was one, but I hope the next movie in the franchise serves him better than this one.

PS:  I am totally single, Patrick Wilson.  Just saying.



We Are Still Here (2015)

Posted: September 17, 2016 in 4 stars, Reviews, We Are Still Here
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mv5bmjqwmzgzmjczov5bml5banbnxkftztgwndk2mtuxnte-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_We Are Still Here is a slow creeper of a movie that ratchets up to a gorefest of an end that is weirdly, viscerally satisfying.  Paul  (Andrew Sensenig) and Anne (genre veteran Barbara Crampton), grieving over the death of their son in a car accident, move into an old farmhouse outside a small town.  Weird Things begin happening, and shortly we are introduced to the Dagmars, a relentlessly nasty family of ghosts who want their house back.  Which would be bad enough… except that the townspeople want Paul and Anne as sacrifices to whatever dark forces are buried beneath the house.  Faced with ghosts on one side and murderous townspeople on the other, Paul and Anne are in a world of hurt.

It took me a while to warm up to We Are Still Here.  This is because there is exactly one sane person in the entire movie: the hapless husband Paul, who not only has to deal with the fact that his son has died in an accident but also has to put up with his batshit wife, who is convinced her son is haunting the 1800s-era farmhouse they bought to get away from the trauma of his death.  Everyone else in the movie – from the townspeople to the Woodstock refugees (Lisa Marie and Larry Fessenden) who come by to have ill-advised seances and drop the obvious news that Something Is Wrong in the house – is straight-up nuts, and that made it hard to really find anyone to identify with right out of the starting gate.  Mostly I spent the first part of the movie wondering what in the fuck I was watching.

I’m glad to report, however, that the cray grows on you.  First Marie and Fessenden, whose “OMG THE WEIRD ENERGIES” schtick actually becomes sort of endearing.  Then the nutty townspeople, who are the personification of pretty much everything that terrifies urban dwellers about small-town America, reaching their creepfest culmination in Monte Markham’s horrifying town elder, who is willing to do pretty much anything to appease the Lovecraftian darkness apparently dwelling underneath the farmhouse – including making excuses for the mysterious disappearance of the Dagmar family, who are the real ghosts still inhabiting the house.  Then the Dagmars themselves, who I was waving the pennant for by the end of the movie, because those people know what the hell they are about and even the kid disembowels people with style.  I even finally – admittedly in like the last ten minutes of the movie – made my peace with Anne, whose weepiness and slightly bulgy eyes were irresistibly reminiscent of a low-rent Shelley Duvall in The Shining.

We Are Still Here feels like an homage to 70s horror – oddly enough, I got a real Burnt Offerings vibe from it – and its affectionate campiness culminates in a gloriously over-the-top slaughter that fades skillfully down into a quiet, ambiguous ending.  There’s really something for everyone here.  If, like me, you give it the side-eye for the first hour or so, keep going; everything comes together beautifully by the end.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  This movie is a lot like an old house itself; it might smell a little fusty at first, but there are so many little architectural grace notes, so many unexpected and charming rooms and hallways, and overall such a sense of satisfaction and homecoming, that you won’t even be mad about having to replace the boiler.

Dead Silence (2007)

Posted: August 10, 2013 in 4 stars, Reviews
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I’m a big James Wan fan, so I was pleased to find that Dead Silence is a tremendously underrated piece of Gothic awesomeness.

From the opening sequence, illustrating the process of creating a ventriloquist’s dummy (which is FUCKING HORRIFYING and  reinforced my conviction that only someone with several screws loose would be party to such an abomination), the cinematography is full of beautiful desaturated blues and greys and splashes of vivid red.  The score is ominous and effective.  The visual effects are a delight and never serve as a meaningless distraction from what’s going on in the scene.  This is just a damn well-put-together film.

But is it scary?  Well, yes.  It probably helps if you hold the correct viewpoint, which is that ventriloquist’s dummies are inherently evil offenses against the very fabric of the universe, but it’s scary.  Though honestly a better word might be creepy, because while the scary parts only come once in a while, the creepiness is unrelenting from the first frame to the last.

Our hero, Jamie (Ryan Kwanten), has escaped his small-town childhood to move to the Big City, only to have his childhood track him down in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy who is delivered to his door in an unmarked package.  Jamie’s wife (Laura Regan) thinks this is hilarious – for about the fifteen minutes that it takes Jamie to go get takeout and come back to a bloodbath in his apartment and a dead wife missing her tongue.  This all ties in to the local legend of Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts, who is ridiculously beautiful without the cadaver makeup and amazingly terrifying in this role), a ventriloquist who died mysteriously and had all her dolls buried around her in little graves like dead children. Now she’s a ghost haunting the small town and killing off entire families, and if she catches you with your mouth open, she rips out your tongue.  (This poses a particular problem for Jamie, bless him, who appears to have adenoids and as far as I can tell never closes his mouth during the entire movie.)

Needless to say, Jamie’s determination to find out who killed his wife takes him across Mary’s path pretty fast, with disastrous and not entirely predictable results.

Jamie is that rarest of horror movie heroes – the guy who, when a creepy old lady tells him what to do to stop the killing, does it immediately and without question.  Unfortunately, it’s just as promptly undone by the cop (Donnie Wahlberg) following him around trying to pin his wife’s murder on him.  I liked Jamie; he was sympathetic and not unintelligent, and though he shows the occasional lapse in judgment, they’re largely because he’s having a hard time believing that a ghost and a ventriloquist’s dummy are actually running around carving people up.  Bob Gunton and Amber Valetta are excellent as Jamie’s estranged father and his faintly disturbing new stepmother, and Wahlberg is surprisingly watchable as the hapless New York cop who by halfway through the movie probably had just as awful a phobia of small-town America as I do.

The movie’s only real flaw was its ending.  The alternate ending is on the DVD, and I’m not sure I don’t prefer that one.  The ending that made it into the film is a little puzzling – it comes across as “I have spent the entire movie telling people not to do Thing X, but now I’m going to do Thing X myself for apparently no better reason than that it’s time for the movie to end,” and then the credits roll while you’re staring at the screen wondering if you missed something.  The alternate end needed some editing, but maybe something halfway between would have been better.

So what’s the verdict?  Despite the shakiness of the ending, I’m giving Dead Silence four stars.  It’s actually more like three and three-quarters, but I’ll round up.  Insidious is a better movie, but Dead Silence is a worthy precursor, and has the virtue of not containing Darth Maul.

The Innkeepers (2011)

Posted: October 6, 2012 in 1 star, Reviews
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I can’t help feeling like The Inkeepers, like The Haunting of Molly Hartley, isn’t actually a ghost story; it’s a movie about hipsters a la Clerks that uses the trappings of ghost stories to showcase its Quirky Twentysomething Characters (TM).  Which would have been fine, I guess, except that the Quirky Twentysomething Characters (TM), while admittedly slightly more entertaining than the bog-standard horror-movie redshirts, were neither what I’d come to see nor interesting enough to warrant watching the movie.  And that’s a pretty damn big drawback in a haunted-house story where nothing even remotely supernatural happens until 45 minutes into the film.

I almost turned it off halfway through when I found out that it was directed by Ti West, who cursed the human race with the staggeringly boring House of the Devil.  Then the second scare – well, “scare” – happened, and I began to legitimately worry that there would be no scares in this movie that weren’t stolen directly from the Haunted House at Disneyland.  Then I started wondering if this was really supposed to be parody, a la Saturday the 14th, and it just… wasn’t actually funny.  Maybe, I said to myself, it’s supposed to be hip, self-referential humor, like the movie had aspirations toward being the ghost story equivalent of Scream.

Then I decided, no, it’s basically Clerks with ghosts, if Clerks was really boring and no one ever said anything clever.

The story, basically, is this.  A historic inn is closing down.  It’s down to two skeleton staff, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healey), and a couple of random guests.  Claire and Luke are vaguely obsessed with proving that the hotel is haunted, so they do things like carrying a recorder around in the hopes of finding EVP.  I’d give you more plot, but that’s basically all it is.  Aside from the aforementioned two scares, the movie doesn’t actually become a ghost story until the last half hour, and doesn’t become remotely scary until the last ten or fifteen minutes.  Until then, the movie contains only two types of scenes: scenes where Claire mugs and flails like a hyperactive eight-year-old trying to play Lady Macbeth, and scenes where Luke shows off the acting ability of his hair and hipster glasses frames.

While Luke is nothing but a stock hipster stereotype, I feel like Claire might have actually made a good main character if she hadn’t been directed with such a heavy and unsubtle hand.  Also, I really wish Carrie Fisher or Jamie Lee Curtis had been tapped for the role of the former TV star turned cranky medium, because that would have been fucking glorious.  And while I’m wishing for horses, they could have been given a better script.  In a better-paced movie.  With an ending that didn’t fall quite so flat.  That was directed by someone who doesn’t seem to believe that true horror is when great spans of time go by and nothing the slightest bit diverting happens.

So what’s the verdict?  One star. There was only one really disturbing thing about this movie, and that was the discovery that, while Tom Cruise apparently has a portrait of himself hidden in the attic, Kelly McGillis at some point became a bona fide senior citizen.  Now that was scary.

In a way, I don’t like reviewing Japanese movies I didn’t love.  I just feel like they’re too high-context and I don’t have the cultural understanding to judge their merits accurately.  Like, I don’t understand what’s scary about hair, in the first place, and now I have to try to figure out what’s scary about basketballs.  (Spoiler: I did not figure out what was scary about basketballs.)

White Ghost/Black Ghost is actually two short films, both of which are supposed to fit into the whole Ju-On mythos.  White Ghost involves a family moving into the Grudge house and coming to a nasty end at the hands of the oldest son.  The story’s told in a flash-forward/flashback framework that bounces back and forth between a number of characters, all of whom have had a glancing encounter with someone or something involved in the murder, and all of whom come to a bad end.  There are some good bits and some effective scares, but the movie as a whole balances precariously on the boundary between effective and ineffective.

It’s still sort of balancing there, unresolved.  It probably would have been a grim, unsettling little movie if the ghost hadn’t, bewilderingly, been a tiny little old lady carrying around a basketball like she was going to beat someone to death with it.  Every time she came on the screen I just sat there, staring at her, going “What?  No, seriously, what?

I mean, the rest of the movie I liked.  I didn’t love it, but I thought it was good at conveying the sheer random nastiness of how the curse can just screw up your life if you so much as walk past it on the street.  (The poor cake delivery guy, holy crap.)  If it hadn’t had a ghost who made me stop dead in my tracks and go “What? What in the hell can possibly be scary about a little old lady with delusions of being a Harlem Globetrotter?” then I’d probably have been a lot more impressed.

Black Ghost, about a girl with an ingested twin who’s thoroughly pissed off about not being born, is widely considered to be inferior to the first movie.  I can’t decide if I agree with that or not, but I’m leaning toward no.  Certainly it’s less clever and stylish, but a couple of the scares were far creepier, and the only thing that made me go “Okay, no, seriously now” was the throat-creaky thing the ghosts will insist on doing even though I did that all the time as a child and it wasn’t scary then either.  It also gets bonus points for containing an exorcist, thus instantly transforming it into a sort of live-action crossover between The Grudge and Tactics.

Black Ghost is a lot more straightforward a horror movie than White Ghost, which is both a strength and a weakness – there are no distractions from the story, but the story itself is a little banal, and it could be that some distraction wouldn’t have done it harm.  On the other hand, White Ghost is a prime example of how even a clever movie can be derailed by by that one thing that’s just a little too distracting.

So what’s the verdict?  I went back and forth between a low three-star rating and a high two-star rating.  In the end, though, it only gets two, both because of Grandma With a Basketball (seriously, what?) and because of the over-reliance on creaky throat noises.

The Echo (2008)

Posted: September 17, 2012 in 3 stars, Reviews, The Echo
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Well, damn.  Thank you, The Echo.

I’ve been on a real losing streak with regard to my choice of movies lately.  The Echo broke that streak nicely and provided me with an actually enjoyable viewing experience.  Behold:

1.  It looked like an honest to god movie, filmed with legitimate movie-filming equipment by people who had a production budget containing more than four digits.  (Unlike The Pact and Absentia.)

2.  The actors behaved like people receiving a paycheck to convince me that they are real human beings to whom strange and frightening things are happening.  (The Pact and Absentia again.)

3.  The movie made sense, and the action and pacing were tight, with no scenes that looked like they wandered in from a completely different movie.  (The Yellow Wallpaper.)

4.  I liked the characters.  Yes, even the guy who just got out of jail for manslaughter.  Not even once in this movie did I petition God to kill off one of the protagonists.  (Wicked Little Things.)

5.  The ending suited the movie and did not appear to be inserted in there at random.  (The Pact, The Yellow Wallpaper.)

Okay, so all this sounds like it’s damning with faint praise.  But I think even if I’d seen it after, say, Stir of Echoes, I’d still have enjoyed this movie.

East Village denizen Bobby (Jesse Bradford), newly released from prison on an involuntary manslaughter charge, comes home to the apartment where his mother died while he was in the joint.  He tries to reconnect with his friends, who largely want nothing to do with him now, and his adorable ex-girlfriend Alyssa (Amelia Warner), who sort of wants nothing to do with him but is willing to be convinced.  As he’s dealing with cleaning out his mother’s things and working through his grief, he starts hearing all sorts of unpleasant things – scratching, whispers, the guy next door beating his family.

Things just get weirder from there.  The things he hears and sees get worse.  He finds out some unpleasant things about the state of his mother’s mental health.  The family next door gets more and more disturbing.  Alyssa starts hearing things too.  Of course, it turns out that what’s going on is GHOSTS, and you know how pissy ghosts get if you don’t figure out what they want and give it to them.

The Echo is cut from the same cloth as Red Sands and Forget Me Not – it’s a low-budget, unmarketed, unassuming movie that you don’t have high expectations of until you watch it and it turns out against all expectations to be really good.  Bradford and the script between them did an amazing job of getting me invested in Bobby; the scenes where he’s wandering around sort of lost in his mother’s apartment, trying to figure out what to do with her things, are genuinely sad.  The creepiness factor starts early, ramps up slowly but inexorably, and carries through right until the end.  There’s just enough injection of social issues to give it bite but not enough to make it preachy, which is a balance almost no one ever manages to strike.

The tagline says it’s from the executive producers of The Ring and The Grudge.  I don’t know what executive producers do so I don’t know how significant that really is, but the movie does carry that faint vibe of a good American remake of a good foreign movie, so you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a remake or adaptation or something of a 2004 Filipino movie of the same name.  I haven’t seen the original, but that’s fine with me – the remake was satisfying enough.

So what’s the verdict?  Three stars.  Not only is it worth a watch, I may add it to my DVD library.

In the course of trying to decide whether I wanted to watch The Pact enough to spring $6.99 for it on Amazon Instant, I read a review of it on Shock Till You Drop.  This particular site put the actors’ previous movies in bold and parentheses, just like I put their names in bold and parentheses.  Because I wasn’t paying attention, this caused me to be convinced for like 30 seconds that the lead actress in The Pact was named Death Valley, and I was like “Dear God, Bertie Wooster was right, there’s some raw work pulled at the font.”  Then I skimmed farther down in the review and realized that, while I could totally see some neo-hippie minor celebrities naming their daughter Death Valley, I’m pretty sure even the staunchest of geeks would draw the line at naming their son Starship Troopers.

Basically, a woman who by all accounts is pretty nasty dies, leaving her two unenthusiastic daughters to tidy up her affairs.  The first daughter (Agnes Bruckner) gets to the house a couple of days before the second and promptly disappears.  The second daughter (Caity Lotz) rolls up a few days later to find no sister and an awful lot of things going bump in the night.  When the house apparently eats a cousin too, Lotz sets out to find out what the hell is going on.

The Pact, as far as I could tell, doesn’t actually involve a pact of any sort.  That’s kind of a good metaphor for the movie.  It starts out as a fairly good ghost story, then takes a left turn into the land of uninspired serial killer movies.  Neither of the interesting characters – Casper Van Dein as the world’s most blase cop and Haley Hudson as a medium who apparently lives in a crack house – have much screen time.  Caity Lotz as Annie has one sort of inspired moment during a ouija-board scene where she appears to be attempting to convince an invisible audience that she is Too Cool to Freak Out, but other than that, she wears the role in much the same way as a couture model wears a McQ dress – her job appears to be to carry the script along without ever distracting the viewer by being memorable in any way.

The last scene, and I’m not considering this a spoiler because it made no sense to me and will probably make no sense to you either, is someone’s eye opening.  I don’t know whose eye it was or what the significance was of it popping open.  Undoubtedly I was supposed to pay very close attention to everyone’s eyes in this movie, but sadly, I really didn’t.

So what’s the verdict?  I hate to say it, but two stars.  I want to give it more just because I forked over a ridiculous amount of money to rent it, but it’s just not that good a movie.  It started out as one, but the serial killer half was disappointingly devoid of things like imagination, good acting, interesting characters, or substantive additions to anything that came before it.  If you’re really bored and can catch it for free on Netflix, go ahead, but learn from my fail and don’t pay money to see it.

The Yellow Wallpaper (2011)

Posted: September 5, 2012 in 2 stars, Reviews
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2011 was a banner year for yellow wallpaper, my god.  There were not one, not two, not three, but four movies based (more or less loosely) on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, including… well, this one.  I don’t know about the others, but this one is a low-budget horror movie, and therefore – as you have probably already guessed – bears basically no resemblance to the short story beyond the main character’s first name and the fact that one room is papered in a rather terrifying yellow wallpaper.  Seriously, this wallpaper is a scary character in and of itself.  I can’t imagine anyone could possibly have put it up unironically.

The movie poster contains the tagline “Are we already dead?”  Your guess is as good as mine as to why.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual movie.

Anyway, the story.  The fact that it bears very little resemblance to the short story is just as well, because the POV character appears to be the husband, which in another film would have been an astoundingly crass co-opting of a feminist narrative.  In this one, John and Charlotte Weiland (Aric Cushing and Juliet Landau), accompanied by Charlotte’s sister Jennie (Dale Dickey), have just lost their house and their daughter in a fire.  Still in shock and possessed only of the clothes on their back, they rent the obligatory spooky house.

Soon, however, all of them start seeing visions of the dead daughter.  Jennie goes off somewhere and returns with a psychic (Veronica Cartwright) in tow to tell them that there is Something Evil in the house, and things go rapidly downhill from there.

The thing about The Yellow Wallpaper is that the four main actors are far and away better than the movie deserves.  They actually manage to sell it for most of the run time.  Not the end, because this movie ends in a denouement so flat-out silly that Ian McKellen at the right hand of Sara Bernhardt couldn’t have saved it, but more of it than the filmmakers had any right to expect.  The dialogue is painful, there are way too many scenes that just make no sense and don’t even seem to belong in the movie, and the “We are seeing everything through a thick yellow fog, look at us being all profound and allegorical” cinematography was ill-advised.  Mostly what I took away from this was that I’d like to see the cast play similar roles in a much better movie.

So what’s the verdict?  Two stars.  If it weren’t for the cast, this movie would be hanging by its fingernails at one star, with the last fifteen minutes threatening to overbalance it right into the zero-star quagmire.  If you only see one 2011 movie based on “The Yellow Wallpaper” this year, you’ve probably got three better choices.  I haven’t seen any of them, but I have a hard time imagining that they could really be much worse.


You know what’s awesome?  Scratching the surface of an almost-direct-to-video movie on Netflix and finding, against all odds, that you’ve unearthed a clever, involving, genuinely creepy film.

Sandy (Carly Schroeder) and her friends have this game they play.  In graveyards.  At night.  (You are excused for thinking this sounds like a bad idea already.)  One person is the ghost and goes around tagging other people, who then become ghosts themselves and chase everyone else around until eventually the last person left “alive” is the winner.  One night they’re out playing, and suddenly Random Creepy Chick pops out from behind a tombstone.

RANDOM CREEPY CHICK:  Hey, can I play?  We’ll all just pretend I’m not clearly crazier than a shithouse rat.

SANDY AND FRIENDS:  Er… sure, I guess.

RANDOM CREEPY CHICK:  Sandy!  Don’t you remember me?

SANDY:  Hell no, I think I would have remembered crazy-eye of that impressive degree.

RANDOM CREEPY CHICK:  Ooh!  You’re going to regret that.

And lo and behold, Sandy does.  Not right away; but pretty soon her friends start getting slaughtered one by one.  And here’s the clever part: as soon as they die, they’re basically written out of the universe as if they had never existed.  No one remembers them.  The lives of the survivors are rearranged around the absence, so subtly at first that it legitimately took me a while to figure out what was going on.  And sure enough, the more people die, the more ghosts there are to chase the living around, until eventually there’s only one left.

Now, the “Person X disappears and no one remembers they existed except Person Y” trope is not new, to be sure.  It’s just that it’s done so well here, and you’re allowed to figure out for yourself what’s going on instead of having huge amounts of expository dialogue beating you over the head all the way through.  It doesn’t hurt that the acting is above par and the characters – mirabile dictu – are, despite being teenagers, actually ones I was sorry to see go.  Usually herds of movie teenagers are so unpleasant that it gives me a sort of grim satisfaction to watch them get picked off one by one, but not here.

So what’s the verdict?  I think I need a wider rating scale.  Call this one three and a half stars.  It’s not quite a four-star movie, but it’s head and shoulders above the three-star pack.  It’s creative, respectful of its audience, and genuinely scary in places.  Highly recommended.

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.