From IMDb: For their ghost hunting reality show, a production crew locks themselves inside an abandoned mental hospital that’s supposedly haunted – and it might prove to be all too true.
I really enjoy found footage films, and Grave Encounters is one of the best lesser known ones. If the found footage conceit frustrates you, this will probably not changed your mind about the subgenre. But if you are open to it, the film builds realistic reasons why the characters would be recording the situation, and why we are able to see the footage. At the very beginning, a television producer explains the footage was mailed to them, and the film is an unedited cut of the 72+ hours of footage they were sent.
Grave Encounters starts as a spot-on satire of Ghost Adventures, with a main protagonist who is clearly based on Zak Bagans right down to his method of demanding spirits make themselves known. Both Lance (the show’s Zak Bagans-like lead) and Houston (the psychic) are shown hamming up their ridiculous performances. The footage goes from scenes of the crew goofing off to dramatic time lapse footage meant to evoke a sense of fear, showing us the contrast between the actual reality and the fictionalized reality of the show.
All the early interviews the crew performs are as stilted and awkward as you could imagine, with interviewees asking if they should look at the camera or the person talking to them. Others are obviously staged, like when they pay off a Latino gardner to say he say a ghost after he tries to ignore them in order to complete his work.
By doing all this, it really delves into the fakeness of reality shows, so it is that much more frightening when things get serious. This film pulls its tonal shift off effectively, slowly ramping up the scares from a door seemingly moving on its own to demon faced spirits. In an especially effective callback, the character who tries to communicate with spirits with an analog recorder meant to pickup electronic voice phenomena (EVP) gets “HELLO” scratched on her back as a response later in the film. The movie is pretty scary in the second half, with some effective jump scares and shocks.
Grave Encounters handles mental illness better than many of its peers, especially ones that use asylums as a backdrop. Unlike other horror films which use mental hospital patients as the scary things in and of themselves, Grave Encounters clearly shifts blame away from the institution’s patients and onto the the social structures that warped them. The film crew characters are neither terribly unlikeable or aspirational – they are just people. This plays well into the film’s exploration of the terrible treatment of mental patients at the hospital. Like the patients, the characters become trapped inside the asylum. They encounter endless corridors, dirty rooms, and stairwells and exits that lead to nowhere. Although there are ghosts of patients and they are antagonistic towards the crew, the movie shifts blame onto the conditions the patients were kept under, and the nefarious head doctor who used secret rooms in the service tunnels to do occult experiments on them . The spirits are cruel towards the film crew because they don’t know anything else now. The crew doesn’t deserve their excessively terrible fates, but neither did the people who were dumped in the asylum and forgotten about. The movie demonstrates the cycle of abuse the hospital inflicted, and how it would cause a psychotic break in even the sanest person.
The tensions between the characters also make sense. Unlike plenty of slasher films with groups of frienemies who seem to secretly (or openly!) despise one another, the characters in this film are coworkers. It makes sense in that context that there might be tensions between them, but also explains why they would be interacting with one another.
There are a few things this film could have done better. Namely, I think it should have delayed the reveal of how hopeless the situation really is. The moment the characters break down the main entrance, only to see it now leads to another endless corridor, we know everyone is doomed. If the movie would have delayed this reveal it would have had a more emotional impact.
The other less than stellar aspect is the writing for the cameraman T.C. Gibson. He gets frustrated and spouts off some homophobic comments and uses the term retarded in one scene. His character isn’t really meant to be likeable in those moments, but it just seemed stale and unnecessary to include those bits of dialogue which don’t really contribute to the story.
Minor quibbles aside, this is one of the only “under the radar” found footage films I have really enjoyed. It even passed my wife’s litmus test for a solid horror film, which is much more stringent than mine. It is rare a movie makes us both jumpy for the rest of the night, and this movie did just that despite the fact we had seen it before.
Watch this one by yourself or with only one other friend who isn’t afraid to take it seriously, and you will be pleasantly surprised by how effective it is.