One week a month, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of the new sequel to the modern classic The Blair Witch Project, we look back at some of our favorite found-footage horror films.
Execution is everything in a found-footage horror movie, and execution is what makes Grave Encounters a worthy addition to the subgenre. The concept—a documentary crew enters an abandoned mental hospital in hopes of filming paranormal activity, only to get way more than they expected—goes beyond typical into the realm of cliché. The film opens with the same shots of the crew joking around and testing out their equipment you see in all found-footage horror movies, and the institution itself is so outrageously, exaggeratedly creepy—we’re talking bloody bathtubs and walls covered in the apocalyptic scrawlings of mental patients—that it’s hard not to chuckle.
But the movie wants us to chuckle. Grave Encounters revolves around a very 2011 bit of meta-humor by making this particular documentary crew work for one of those cheesy pseudo-scientific cable reality shows, like Ghost Hunters or Ghost Adventures or Paranormal State or, this writer’s personal favorite, Psychic Kids: Children Of The Paranormal. Sean Rogerson stars as the series’ host, Lance Preston, a Hot Topic-clad game-show host type who isn’t above bribing a groundskeeper for a made-up anecdote. He and his crew of con artists are joined by a similarly cynical “psychic,” Houston (Mackenzie Gray), an out-of-work actor whose biggest concern is getting the supernatural chicanery done in time for his audition the next day.
But as the film progresses, the crew can no longer deny that, unlike everywhere else they’ve ever filmed, this place is actually haunted. This realization comes on slowly; in fact, the viewers are the only ones who even see the first paranormal event. When Lance is first presented with evidence of actual ghosts, his first impulse isn’t to run away, it’s to try to reproduce the events on film. It’s not until the team’s agreed-upon 6 a.m. exit time comes and goes and the sun still doesn’t come up do they realize that something is wrong on a cosmic level. That’s when one of the camera operators kicks down the main entrance to the hospital (being locked in for the night is part of the Grave Encounters team’s schtick), only to find that it leads onto another dark hallway. Which leads to another hallway. And another. And another. The hospital is endless, and timeless.
Because while Grave Encounters makes a joke of its clichéd setup, it takes its horror seriously—directors Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, a.k.a. The Vicious Brothers, both claim to truly believe in ghosts—and doesn’t rely too heavily on cheap tricks. (In fact, the only big jump scares come toward the end.) Instead, the gradually building panic is reflected in the camera work, as the multiple static and handheld cameras that the crew sets up at the beginning of the film are taken down one by one, narrowing the point of view to create a claustrophobic feel.
That’s pretty standard for a found-footage horror movie, but Minihan and Ortiz also insert some wicked little touches—spirits communicating with one crew member by carving words into her back while she sleeps is an especially unsettling one—while riffing on the mental hospital theme and distorting the viewer’s sense of time and place. (And the actors’, for that matter: In a 2011 interview with ScreenAnarchy, Ortiz recalls an incident during the 12-day shoot, which took place at a real abandoned hospital, where he and Minihan built a wall at the top of a stairway without telling the cast, then instructed them to run up it.) It’s all so vivid and disorienting, that by the time we see the obligatory ghostly girl with long, dirty hair, it actually, well, works. So go on, enter Grave Encounters with the same sneering skepticism as the eponymous camera crew. We dare you.
Availability: Grave Encounters is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.