Grave Encounters (2011)

Grave Encounters first published by

The lessons of the ultra-low-budget, extremely profitable The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) were clear: by revitalising the ‘found footage’ format, with its uncannily self-authenticating ‘reality effects’, in this new age of light digital cameras, budding genre filmmakers could craft horror for very little money, and with the potential for an astronomic Return On Investment. At the same time, the market quickly became flooded with shakicam shockers that would often use the ‘live’ amateurism of the characters’ first-person video recordings as poor cover for the actual filmmakers’ broader lack of talent or fresh ideas. A format whose perspective must be confined to the view of in-story cameras, and whose characters must always be motivated to keep filming no matter what happens to them, was to prove as limiting to some directors as it was liberating to others, and the subgenre, designed to reinvigorate hoary old horror tropes, would soon attract its own set of annoying, overused conventions. So when Canadian writer/directors Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz came onto the scene hoping to make their name (or at least their collective pseudonym, ‘the Vicious Brothers’), there was little surprise that their first foray into feature-length frights, Grave Encounters, should be in the affordable and then still vaguely modish found footage format. What perhaps was more surprising was just how successful it would be. This is certainly one of the better films in the format.

Like all ‘found footage’, Grave Encounters is a film pretending to be another film: raw footage from the sixth and last episode (‘The Haunted Asylum’) of TV show Grave Encounters. as host Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), occultist Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko), equipment specialist Matt (Juan Riedinger), cameraman T.C. (Moroni Mondesir), and medium Houston Grey (Mackenzie Gray) visit the long-abandoned, ‘creepy as shit’ Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital to see if they can document evidence of any real hauntings in its labyrinthine corridors. Lance himself is highly sceptical about the existence of the paranormal, and it quickly becomes clear that this team of ghost hunters is not above faking their material. Houston, in particular, is a complete charlatan, there only to generate an eerie vibe for the show. After they conduct several interviews with local subjects about the place’s history and reputation for spooky incursions, they allow themselves to be locked into the premises overnight, and start attempting to make contact – until ever so slowly, their own mundane reality falls under the spell of the place, as things go bump in the night, as the myths come out of the shadows, and as the norms of physics go out the window.

“You put slow motion, music behind it – everything’s creepy”, observes Lance when Matt complains about the “cheesy” nature of the graffiti – “death awaits” – painted on the asylum’s front door. Lance’s words serve as a reflexive comment both on the easy conventions of horror filmmaking, and on the special challenges presented by found footage (which purports to be unmanipulated, and supposedly includes only intradiegetic sound captured by the mikes on the  characters’ cameras). Without any recourse to slow motion or music, Minihan and Ortiz have to deploy other techniques to generate their film’s particular brand of creepiness – and in this, they prove very effective.

Let’s be clear: Grave Encounters is in no way reinventing the wheel. It follows the Blair Witch template of first telling and then showing, while letting its initially cocky cast gradually break down before the irrational invasion of the supernatural. It is full of the creaky old clichés of a haunted house movie, from banging doors, moving objects and spectral apparitions right down to the wheelchair in the hospital corridor (“Lance, you are going to love me!”, comments T.C. when he sees this, instantly recognising the chair’s production value). Yet all this is realised with great skill, making full use of a genuinely unsettling location (the very real River View Hospital in Coquitlam, British Columbia) – and the Vicious Brothers take their time building up the tension, so that when they finally unleash the expected pandemonium, its release is all the more terrifying for having been so long foreshadowed and anticipated. There is no real subtext here (unless the historic state mistreatment of the mentally ill qualifies), but what Grave Encounters lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in real, undeniable scares. 

Summary: Though hardly original, The Vicious Brothers’ debut gets every beat of its found-footage premise right.

© Anton Bitel