Friday, August 26, 2011

Strange Films I've Seen: GRAVE ENCOUNTERS

This summer has been great for genuinely scary films — notably domestic scary films — that bring the climate of jump-scenes and dread back to basics. Like Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, the feature directorial debut of comic book artist Troy Nixey (and bearing a strong presence from co-writer/producer Guillermo del Toro). And like Grave Encounters, the feature writing and directorial debut (sense a trend here?) by the Vicious Brothers (Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz). Because who isn't scared of a haunted house, or, in the case of Grave Encounters, a haunted psychiatric hospital named Collingwood, infamous for Golden Age lobotomies?

The film is told in a series of found footage edits, based off a SyFy-ish paranormal detective crew titling their feature "Grave Encounters". They run the gamut of acting styles, from charismatic and cocky host Lance (Sean Rogerson, giving it his all to be the most asshole-ish bro, even-steven with Micah from Paranormal Activity) to cute and hysterical "occult expert" Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko), comic-relief nerd and tech guy Matt (Juan Riedinger) and effusively opinionated cameraman T.C. (Merwin Mondesir, tying with Gryzko for most believable characters). The plan is to hole up in supposedly haunted Collingwood overnight, chained in by space-case caretaker Sandivol, and record (or manufacture, as Lance shows early on, bribing a gardener to lie about a ghost sighting) whatever ghostly stuff goes down. Sandivol will open the doors the following morning, and they're free to go, edit their tapes and cut another ratings-hungry episode.

Off they go, through the main door marked DEATH AWAITS in greenish spraypaint (no subtleties here). Matt sets up a total of 10 static-cams in supposed "hot-spots" for spooky activity — the 3fl bathroom, actually a spacious room of toppled sinks and fixtures, containing a bloodstained bathtub in which a patient committed suicide; the 4fl where a window apparently opens by itself — while Lance starts spouting pomposities. Like "full spectral apparition", and the difference between "residual and intelligent haunting". Something else about "ectoplasm". We meet Houston Gray (Mackenzie Gray, effortlessly devouring screen-time), looking like a younger Peter Murphy and claiming to be a psychic (though he's definitely an egoist actor, in the film anyway), donning sunglasses indoors and speaking reverentially into thin air. He and Lance get a serious kick out of this.

Then the eeriness begins, with the 4fl static-cam recording that same window opening on its own. Meanwhile, the team is downstairs, stalking the halls and trying to drum up scares. T.C. films a lone old-school wheelchair, something he hadn't noticed before, and as he takes a call from his daughter (promising to be home the next night, etc), the chair moves forward a few inches. Only thing, T.C. had his back to it so he didn't see it happen. But when he then takes the camera into a tiny bathroom-like chamber, the heavy door slams behind him, freaking him — and quite definitely us — the hell out. It's the loudest, punctuating noise thus far. The team reconvenes downstairs, there's some brief infighting as nerves take command — at one point, Lance shouts at a frazzled Houston to "stay in character!" — and they finally agree to collect the gear and wait out the night. They've got enough evidence on-camera, the slamming door behind T.C. and a windy, invisible something messing with Sasha's hair. Matt heads upstairs to grab the static-cams and notices the 4fl window is open. He radios downstairs, receives no response, closes the window and heads out of view.

The team grows antsy waiting for Matt and head out looking for him, but when T.C. is pushed (by source unseen) down a flight of stairs, they give up the search and decide to get out ASAP. T.C. and Lance use a hospital bed to ram down the chained lobby door, revealing…another anonymous hallway. I found this very effective. It has a slight echo to Mark Danielewksi's debut novel House of Leaves (another strong first-timer, note!), in that a house is inexplicably larger on the inside than outside, and features a mysterious doorway revealing labyrinthine hallways and utter darkness. In that House of Leaves vein, the Collingwood Hospital deletes the presence of time (their rescue by Sandivol comes and goes, then it's 1 p.m. and still nighttime outside; their food rots though they'd been in there less than 24 hours; the static-cam timers go bonkers). Disembodied groans and growls permeate the repeating hallways. A roof access sign leads up a staircase to a blank wall. Though this is meant to be a freakout horror film, so requisite scary characters make their presences known (what Lance referred to as "full spectral apparitions" earlier on). Some are quite effective, like the creepy girl in the corner (who in my opinion fits much more seamlessly into the film than the trailer might imply), others (like disembodied hands coming out the walls and ceiling) are cheap thrills. A guy being thrown down the hallway (caught entirely on static-cam, to realistic effect) left me tenser than a gabbling, blank-eyed spectre. Team members disappear into the gloom, even as Matt reappears, inexplicably wearing a hospital gown and clenching his knees to his chest. His words of advice to the team: "Of course there's a way out. We can leave as soon as we're better."

I empathized for the characters as they spiraled into fear and despondency. T.C. we learn has a family. A lot of bad stuff seems to come down on Sasha (the aforementioned hair manipulation, plus "something" carves "HELLO" into her backside), too. Even Lance loses arrogant steam later on and, reduced to desperation, kills a rat and gnaws at it, leering his blood-streaked face into the camera. The Vicious Brothers follow strongly in the mockumentary lineage, after scarefest original The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity (and easily usurping the latter's sequel) and [rec] — and along with fairly restrained CGI, the directors go for terror over explicit violence. I am intrigued where they go from here, and what they do to stay true to the horror genre and really make their mark. As for the film's scare effectiveness, you'll have a chance to decide that for yourself. After super-limited midnight screenings in New York City and Los Angeles this month (following its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival), Grave Encounters has a proper NYC premiere on September 9, with nationwide screenings following afterward. It's available on VOD now, too, but honestly unless you can get your flat dark enough, and the acoustics loud enough, I strongly suggest seeing this in a theatre. Your degree of jumpiness following viewing should determine if it "got to you".