Movie Review: ‘Grave Encounters’

 It looks like there’s life in the old girl yet. The “found footage” horror gimmick feels more gimmicky than ever these days, as even the most interesting ideas quickly turn into cash grabs for unambitious studios, but Grave Encounters – the new independent horror film from the amusingly named Vicious Brothers – reinvigorates the sub-genre with a clever, well-shot and genuinely creepy haunted house tale that flounders a little towards the end, but is never anything less than a spooky treat.

Grave Encounters tells the story of a group of reality television hosts who, like the Ghost Hunters, travel the country in search of supernatural activity. The first part of the film goes a long way in setting the tone: these are true believers, perhaps, but they’re also making a damned TV show. Leading their interview subjects, and even bribing them into reporting ghost sightings, are all par for the course. Their psychic is a sham. Their interests lie entirely in making a piece of entertainment. When the ghosts inevitably make their presence known, it’s initially a thrill. What a great episode this will be. When the ghosts inevitably start taking them out one-by-one, it’s just desserts. It’s a classic and still-effective horror movie device: be careful what you wish for.

The reality show angle isn’t exactly new – a sweet episode of Supernatural covered similar territory – but at least it justifies why they’d actually keep filming after the horror sets in (as opposed to the usual “I don’t know what else to do” rigmarole). The haunted asylum is pretty familiar too, with Session 9 and The House on Haunted Hill still fresh on our minds, but once you accept that there’s nothing new under the sun Grave Encounters reveals itself to be a fresh take on some familiar material, produced with style and wit. The first 2/3’s of the movie offer more subtle and effective scares than Insidious could muster, but it suffers a bit towards the end, as all dramatic logic dictates that the action ramp upwards and, as usual, out of control.

After proof of the supernatural is utterly conclusive, moving a wheelchair slightly in the background ceases to escalate the tension much, so towards the end of Grave Encounters we’re given CGI-enhanced specters and other outsized scares that are either obvious special effects or just so blunt that they’re merely startling as opposed to genuinely frightening. And the climax is a little too easy, although to say more would give the game away. It doesn’t get too big for its britches; these are just the only britches it has. These flaws don’t ruin Grave Encounters, but they turn a potential horror standout into a merely ambitious and mostly-successful debut film from filmmakers who, honestly, I’d like to see a lot more of.

I wish I could have seen Grave Encounters in a theater full of screaming teenagers throwing their popcorn in the air. It’s the perfect movie for that: fun, surprising and often very, very scary. It’s available on Video on Demand but demands a group mentality to reach its maximum effectiveness. If it reaches your hometown, seek it out and enjoy some good old-fashioned creepy thrills while clutching your date tight and trying to pretend you’re not as spooked as they are.