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A Review of "Grave Encounters" (2011)

I'm not all that picky when it comes to horror movies.  All I want is a cast of characters that don't totally irritate me, some well-executed creepy shit to put me on edge, and one or two clever moments that take me by surprise.  If you go better than that and put in some nifty subtext or awesome kid actors or something (like The Babadook), then I'll love you all the more... but I'm fine watching a by-the-books ghost story that treads familiar territory.  Hell, I even kinda liked Unfriended a little bit because it at least delivered on a modicum of terror despite being full of assholes.

I don't know if I can honestly say that Grave Encounters goes too far beyond the bare basics on my checklist, but damn does it deliver on those basics.  It's just a generally great horror movie.

If you haven't seen it, this is the one that starts out as a parody of ghost hunting shows (most specifically, Ghost Adventures) and then becomes a legit horror movie when it turns out the hosts are investigating an actual haunted building.  It came out five years ago, and despite having a sequel and a halfway decent fan base, I didn't even hear about it until this year.

To be fair, it's possible I did hear about it back in the day and I just didn't care.  Since it tries hard to replicate the look and feel of crappy ghost hunting shows, I probably dismissed it as the same and glossed right over it.  If you're like me and you also pre-judged this one, do yourself a favor and check it out.

There's a lot to love here, starting with the premise itself.  This is one of those ideas that I think a lot of people (myself included) probably had at one point or another, but which would have been brought up as a joke.  ("Ha, wouldn't it be funny if these assholes stumbled across a real haunting?")  Since Grave Encounters took that premise and ran with it, it deserves a sort of "itch-scratching" award for simply capitalizing on a good idea.

I will admit that I was a little bit disappointed when I found out that the movie doesn't have too much emphasis on comedy.  The premise easily lends itself to gags, especially if the ghosts aren't particularly malevolent - just annoyed.  Fortunately, to make up for its lack of laughs, it's crammed to the gills with effective horror.

My recommendation is to watch it with as little knowledge as possible ahead of time.  There's nothing as terrifying as the first time a horror movie throws you a curveball, and there are some amazing ones here.  But at the same time, I want to warn you that the first half hour is a sloooooow burn.  Before the true haunting begins, the movie is a run-of-the-mill ghost-chasers show: some seemingly interchangeable dummies walk around with night vision, there's occasionally a creepy noise, a window pops open seemingly on its own, etc.  Nothing especially scary.

The main attraction of that first act isn't the horror, it's just how much effort the filmmakers put into getting the tone of ghost-chaser shows just right.  The main character isn't an exact duplicate of Zak Bagans, but he nails just enough of the mannerisms that you can tell where his DNA is coming from.  It's one of those "such a good parody that it's not even a parody anymore" type of situations.  So, if you hate those kinds of shows, you might be tempted to turn it off.

Don't do that.  Grave Encounters is a great example of how to escalate shit the right way.  The first half hour is slow, but once things go south, they really go south.  Each scare outdoes the last and things get progressively scarier and more dire until you get to one of the creepiest and best horror movie endings I've seen.

It's also has some great usage of jump scares.  Jump scares are kind of a cheat in most movies - if you don't know how to scare your audience, you just have a cat jump out of a shadow or something falls down and makes a loud noise.  I think the filmmakers felt the same way because they have very, very few jump scares that truly come out of nowhere.  The vast majority of them are used more like the punctuation point to the horror rather than the horror itself.  You see something that's already creepy and you know well in advance that it's going to scare the shit out of you... and then it does.

I really liked this one.  It's fresh, it's fun, it's scary as hell.  I'll go so far as to call it a "must-watch."  Go check it out if you haven't already.

And Now Here's Some Spoilers

I can't stop gushing about this movie.  It probably makes me sound like some idiot who just watched his first ever horror movie, but I really want to go on and on about all the parts I loved.  Unfortunately, all of that stuff is technically a spoiler, so this part is just for everybody who's seen the movie and likes to see other people agree with them on the Internet.

The first great "oh, shit!" moment is when the crew breaks open the lock on the front door and they find out that it just leads to another hallway.  That's the exact moment I realized I was going to love this movie.  It was starting to win me over a little bit when they played with the passage of time and the disappearing crew member, but the minute they find out they're trapped, I knew it was going to get good.

When it isn't doing original, innovative stuff, it just uses really well-done classics.  Like the part where they first see a ghost walking by, and then they walk up to it (like idiots) and it shrieks at them.  Or the part where the gurney flies into the air and bangs all over the room.  Or the part where the actor gets tossed around a hallway by invisible demons.  These are the things you always secretly hope are going to happen when a ghost chaser starts shouting down an empty hall. The sum is something that can justly be called "harrowing."

One of the greatest things about Grave Encounters is how the protagonist more or less comes to terms with his death, but that he's so broken by the experience that he's now more afraid of going insane.  I don't know that I would call that "awesome," since it's incredibly disturbing and upsetting... but wow, what a way to go out.

It reminds me of something somebody once said about Stephen Gammell's "Scary Stories" drawings.  I can't remember who (maybe it was on the Flophouse podcast?), but they said what made Gammell's world so horrifying was how the monsters in his pictures looked like they themselves were in pain.  A hellscape where demons cry is a place you don't want to be.

Good on ya, Grave Encounters.  You have made one of the most terrifying movie universes imaginable.