Was at the TAPS event this weekend and got the chance to watch a screening of the Tribeca Film Festival’s highly talked about found-footage horror film Grave Encounters. The first time I caught the trailer on youtube, I was eager to see the rest. It’s the story of a film crew shooting a paranormal television show who step in something truly horrific.
After each new found footage film, you wonder whether another will be as successful as the last, providing that visceral horror and reality-bending scares, both in the box office and as a storytelling device. Blair Witch Project felt one of a kind. Cloverfield, I felt, could never be repeated. Yet Paranormal Activities one and two dominated the market and we’re continuing to see adaptations and updates, fresh new takes and perspectives.
Grave Encounters initially takes its cues very overtly from popular ghost hunting shows Paranormal State and Ghost Adventures, so thoroughly that the lead, Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) seems to almost shapeshift between Zak Bagans and Ryan Buell, enough that caused me a double take or two, if just to make sure I wasn’t missing some cameo.
Immediately the show takes full hold of its genre. Indeed, initially, I worried the obviousness in the mimicking of Ghost Adventures was unrealistic, that a show so similar would never be successful, that it was too easy a premise. But as the plot took hold, the real heart of the movie came out. Though we’re seeing footage “unedited for television,” we get this strange blend of those clips that would make the final cut, but also those cuts that don’t, without the music and editing in between. This kind of campy honesty makes the show feel real and something we can trust. Many watchers wonder about the behind the scenes, whether it’s real, whether anything is staged, and what the cast does when the cameras are off, and its this blend of insight, self-awareness, and aptitude for the television it seeks to pervert that makes the film most truly successful.
Found footage movie. Everyone is going die or disappear somehow. In a place they don’t think is actually haunted. It’s a premise that’s been done, and if that was really the root of this movie, I can’t say I would have enjoyed it. The climax lasted too long for my taste and I’d be lying if I said that each time the scene switched, I wasn’t praying for it to be over, but as a violent film, that’s not necessarily a knock. For me, it was the House of Leaves scenario that transcended the shit-hitting-the-fan escalation, the idea that it’s not just an escalating haunting that provides the scares (a la Paranormal Activity), but something greater and truly powerful and terrifying. The very nature of reality is manipulated and changed, a kind of terrible power that makes the characters utterly helpless against it.
That’s the second heart of the movie; that hopelessness. You feel it. I watched this film with a laughing, half-drunk bunch, and we were all eerily quiet halfway through. There’s a real terror operating between the lines (or shots, should it be?). What do you do when you stop expecting to ever be saved or to ever get out? What kind of terror is it that grabs you when the situation is utterly lost? Sometimes certain images and situations broke my suspension of belief, but the film regained my attention quickly again and brought me back to the moment, prepared for the next scare.
Does Grave Encounters carry the thematic depth of House of Leaves? No, it follows more the premise alone. Is it the kind of thematic horror movie that makes my subconscious and writerly nerves shiver? No. It’s a group of people in a terrifying situation getting freaked out and the idea is that the viewer should too. No, it’s not a thematic philosophical commentary, it’s not doing the work of art, but by the end of this movie, I was feeling, and I was thinking. And that alone is a success.
Because the film touched on this idea of a god-like horror, of reality-bending and Hell-constructing power, there was a real philosophical and thematic possibility introduced and overlooked that I can’t ignore, and that’s why this movie falls short at only a good entertaining flick. When you’re confined to infinite hallways and paradoxes of the very reality you grew up trusting and a doorway appears before you, would you enter? Should you fear what lies beyond? That question to me was the true heart of the movie and I would have liked for the writers and filmmakers to linger on that idea a bit more, to linger on the implications of the situation itself in addition to the pure intensity of the elements.
Could this story go through a few more edits before hitting the screen and have an avenue to a kind of greatness? Sure. But I don’t want my idealism to detract from what was a very successful movie. It was scary. It was intense. It knows exactly the genre that it intended to explore. It was another interesting adaptation of the found footage horror genre. I’d recommend it to horror fans, ghost hunting groupies and would push for a wide release. This movie deserves it. An A rating though? Not so much.