Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Grave Encounters

NetFlix 3.5/5
IMDB 6.1/10
My Rating: 6/10

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.

Anyone who's ever done any business traveling is probably familiar with those "ghost hunting" shows that litter cable TV.  You know the drill - You're in a strange city, it's after hours, there's nothing to do and you don't want to blow $45 sitting in the hotel bar looking pathetic.  Instead, you flip through the TV channels and are reminded instantly of why no one pays $85 a month for cable TV anymore... It's wretched.  200 channels of reality shows and commercials will illustrate in a heartbeat just how out of touch that HBO exec was who claimed that cord-cutting was just "a passing fad".  And as you channel surf, one type of program you're almost bound to stumble over is the "ghost hunting" show... They seem to be on every frickin' channel now.  

These things are all the same, whether they're hunting ghosts, aliens, or Bigfoot.  A bunch of eager young 20-somethings go to a remote location and stumble around in the dark uttering lines like, "I feel something.  I definitely feel something here." and, "I just sensed a cold presence move through the room."  You know going in that they're not about to discover anything remotely provable or you'd already have heard about it on the real news, so instead you suffer through a half hour of Blair Witch wannabes freaking out over house-settling noises and random breezes.  I can usually stand about five minutes of these shows before I flip over to watch the infomercial about treadmills.

Grave Encounters, then, is both a clever idea and a "ghost hunter" hater's wet dream - A horror movie built around the cast of a ghost hunting show being driven insane and slaughtered by discovering very real ghosts.  "Grave Encounters" is the title of their ghost hunting program and it's just like all the real ones - They go to a "haunted" location, slip the locals a few bucks to dramatize some stories about past encounters, and then hole up inside the haunted spot for a night of jumping at shadows and generally making fools of themselves. And it's blackly funny, too - The cast and crew make no bones about how much they're going to have to "sex up" the location to make their show scary, and wearily laugh off any pretense that what they're selling on video might be true.



The movie is a recording of what happens when the Grave Encounters crew goes to investigate a haunted asylum.  They get the usual dire warnings from the caretaker, they set up their cameras and "ghost detecting" equipment, and then we're off...  And that's where the movie really gets good.

(I should point out that this is another "found footage" movie.  I tend to dislike these things because the handicam shakes make my stomach gurgle, but this is definitely a superior example of the sub-genre.  Static camera positions give us welcome relief from the constant bobbing of hand cams, and it's really less frenetic and jump cut-ish than many traditional moves I've seen lately.  Quantum of Solace, anyone?)

For dramatic reasons, they lock themselves in for the night, then regret it as it becomes obvious that for once, this isn't just another haunted house fake.  Things go bump in the night, indeed.  And this is what I loved about the movie - You get to see the cocky TV ghost hunters come absolutely unglued by encountering an actual horror... It's like the episode of "ghost hunter" TV that you've always wanted to see.  And it's beautifully subtly done, too - For the majority of the movie we're in Haunting territory, where the quiet click of a door closing by itself is far creepier than any CGI monster.  I give the film high praise in bestowing the "Made the hair on my arms stand up" award... Several times, in fact.  As the crew become increasingly unhinged, you're pulled right along with them through this Very Long Dark Night via their camera recordings and flash photographs.  It's a really terrific experience.

And then you hit the final act.

The last 20 minutes or so drops the movie at least 2 points on my ratings scale, because it jumps its own shark.  After a wonderfully creepy middle section, it seems to lose track and can't decide if it wants to be [REC], Blair Witch, or Lord of the Flies.  Chilling "Did you just see that?" moments become screaming ghost attacks and the scare factor vanishes like a pebble into the well of Donald Trump's ego.  It's entertaining right to the end, mind, and I'd certainly recommend it for anyone looking for a fun haunted house movie with some quality shocks... It's just a bit frustrating because it came so, SO close to being a really great film.  Still, you get to see a "ghost hunter" cast go insane and die, and who wouldn't enjoy that?