In the film’s diegesis “Grave Encounters” is, or rather was, a popular television series. Alone on a studio set, a snappy well-groomed individual, presumably the show’s ex-producer, tells us with strained gravitas that the show was a forerunner to all the paranormal reality TV shows before it was mysteriously cancelled. Edited only for time, we’re informed, the footage we’re about to see will help to explain why. We’re being groomed for something preternaturally shocking. The circumstances surrounding the footage are thus: the crew of “Grave Encounters” with host Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) set out to film an episode at Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital in British Columbia with the animus that for ratings sake they plan to lock themselves inside for a full day and night of guerrilla filming and ghost-hunting. From here on out, we see only what the crew sees, or rather what they captured between two roving handhelds and 10 stationary cameras.
That the ‘found footage’ paranormal angle is a withered teat, I have no doubt; however, paranormal television, within those confines, may just be ripe for parody. I often find parody to be as much of a nuisance as the thing that spawned it, but there are plenty of worthwhile examples. It may all come down to writing. Clever, but not too clever. Some proper admixture of cunning and conviction. It’s rare it ever works, but Grave Encounters endeavors to do just that. And comes quite close.
Behind-the-scenes handheld footage quickly introduces us to host Lance Preston, a perfectly realized bastard of a TV personality. He oozes TV. His theatrics off-camera as well as incidental footage of the crew reveal that nobody working on this show truly believes in the paranormal. For everyone involved, the show is a paycheck. This is only the first stab at parodying shows like Ghost Hunters, whose fans surely believe that everything they see is authentic and that their charismatic hosts are completely sincere professionals. The Vicious Brothers, the writer-director team of Grave Encounters, clearly have a bone to pick. We witness Preston courting the groundskeeper, a man who has witnessed some unexplainable phenomena occur over the years. He tells Preston what he wants to hear, namely that the hospital was abandoned and left to rot after decades of experimental testing, that the bathtub left in the middle of a room on the upper floors once held a patient who slit her wrists in it, that a certain window always seems to jar itself open at night after it’s been securely locked, etc. The ghost hunting TV show gets plenty of juicy gristle to chew on from the groundskeeper.
In their banter early on, the crew makes it known how difficult it can be to generate ‘evidence’ on every episode, so the expository stuff with the groundskeeper takes on a great deal of significance for the show’s success and the crew spends a lot of time digging up these kinds of details to complement the episode. Amusingly, Preston finds a Hispanic landscaper whom he has to pay to cooperate with the show; the man happily obliges by indulging the host with his ‘tale’ of having seen ghosts on the grounds, which amounts to, “Yes. I see ghosts in building. They scare me,” in broken English. Another amusing aside to further emphasize the errant attitudes of all involved has Preston telling cameraman T.C. (Merwin Mondesir) to get a time-lapse of the hospital as dusk intrudes. T.C. at that moment is brandishing a football and taunting another crewmember; he puts it down and then we see the result of his begrudged work which transitions us to nighttime and the beginning of the ‘ghost adventure’.
The parody becomes complete with the addition of Houston Gray (Mackenzie Gray) on set. He’s the stereotypical spiritual medium, there to assist the ghost-hunters when their high-tech gadgetry fails them. Houston plays the part splendidly as he too knows he’s full of shit. These first excursions into the hospital’s dark corridors to plant cameras and to evoke spirits are hilariously dead-on. It really feels like a behind-the-scenes look at a popular television series.
I have to applaud the entire cast and crew and especially the writers for the first 45 minutes or so of Grave Encounters. They’ve got this tongue-in-cheek, metafictional irony working perfectly. Every avenue of comedic exploit is utilized for the paranormal TV crew that doesn’t believe in the paranormal. It makes it so that it’s amusing everytime someone shudders at their own shadow in a hallway or when a door slams unexpectedly and the crew urges the spirit to do it again on behalf of the show’s ratings. The film maintains a perfect satirical pitch throughout this portion. In addition, the outre reality of this being footage from a show that never aired begins to intrude on the show in humorous ways. The conceit manifests itself in a creepier way with the primary stationary camera positioned in the lobby; it’s never shut off and is cut to when we need to be clued in on either the time of day or, later on, the length of time the crew has been on location.
So the film transforms from a parody of paranormal TV to a documentary horror. It begins credibly enough, with windows opening themselves as captured by one of the tripod cameras and with crewmember Sasha’s (Ashleigh Gryzko) hair being lifted after she’s beckoned the spirits into her voice recorder. The crew gets ready to pack up and leave as they’ve gathered all the footage they need and the caretaker is due to arrive shortly to let them out. The story continues to forge ahead with alacrity and charm as camera operator Matt (Juan Riedinger) becomes lost while gathering up all the equipment on the various floors (incredibly, the crew sent him alone to round up at least 10 cameras). Then, the caretaker never shows so the rest of the crew breaks the lock at the entrance, and discovers that it isn’t the entrance after all (or, it no longer is). This leads to a dizzying foray through the labyrinthine building, a building T.C. hypothesizes as actually living, as it seems to continually change around them. They’re even foiled by a hallway map, its usually reliable ‘you are here’ marker indicating they’re on the ground floor still when everyone concurs that they’ve just traveled up at least four flights of stairs. The gutted hospital doesn’t want them to leave, it seems.
The mise-en-scene is so relentless, so inherently dark and disarming that the merest hints of lurking strangeness are hard to ignore. What Grave Encounters accomplishes here is what Session 9 accomplished with more traditional techniques, but like that film Grave Encounters uses shadow, ambient sound and even long passages of odd silences to disorient and unnerve. So I was just getting ready to declare this a laudable piece of tomfoolery, an ostensible parody turned against the audience, when the specter of J-Horror rears it’s ugly, facile head.
What begins as a modest, hard-earned piece of indie filmmaking becomes, in its final half-hour, a crib-fest of epic proportions. Stupid J-Horror tropes such as the ‘unmoving girl facing the corner only to turn around suddenly and menace’ are employed here—generally speaking, the film suddenly revels in sundering that mental curtain between suspension and disbelief. With the possible exception of the Final Destination series, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed so many attempts at making an audience jump in their seats packed into such a short span of time. All of the effectively hinted-at evils of the first half are now shown in all of their ostentatiously grisly, corpse painted glory; malignant ghosts, doctors and patients from the hospital’s past, appear at every corner. A great idea like having time stand still for the crew while inside—when they peer from the windows it’s always dark and seemingly the same day as when they entered, in spite of the fact their watches indicate they’ve been trapped for days—is crushed under the weight of the obvious by film’s end.
Making matters worse, this simply devolves, as so many before it have, into ‘just desserts’ filmmaking. We’re meant to laugh at the notion of the supernatural in the beginning, only to ridicule the protagonists later on for not heeding the dire warnings so obviously given them. What at first appeared to be bait for laughs in the character of the groundskeeper turns out to be the grave encounter that we should’ve given credence. What begins as a parody ultimately parodies itself and its chosen method of attack. It almost beckons future attempts at parodying half-hearted parodies of supernatural horror.
It recalls another mostly excellent indie film from recent years called Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. That was a fictional film about a small film crew documenting the everyday routines of an ‘actual’ serial killer. If it sounds like Belgian art house Man Bites Dog, which shares with it a tongue-and-cheek doc turned horror film progression, it’s not far off, but Behind the Mask revels in the tropes of the slasher film and slasher antagonists. It’s not clever enough to work on its own, but the acting of the lead, the serial killer, is charming and daring enough to keep you interested. I could say the same of Grave Encounters with lead character Lance Preston if the film didn’t eat its own tail and then vomit the contents all over the last half-hour. When apparitions begin to take flesh, take your flesh away from this movie.