OK, confession time; I love paranormal television programmes. Ever since Strange But True, hosted by Michael Aspel and shown on ITV in the early 90s (Man alive, that show was awesome, after I’ve finished writing this I might go and track it down on YouTube). So, yeah, Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted etc., love them. And I’m not going to go into my beliefs on the subject, but primarily, these programmes entertain me, which should be their chief aim in my opinion. They are not scientific documentaries (Even Ofcom agrees with me on this). I certainly don’t believe every muffled bang and dust particle (sorry, ‘orb’) they capture is evidence of the supernatural, and there’s lots to pick apart and make fun of in these shows, which I do, at length, as it is entirely possible to still enjoy something and rip on it at the same time. As the audience, as know all the people involved in these shows are never in any real danger from marauding and vengeful spirits, but what if they were? That’s the premise of Grave Encounters, a found footage film from 2011. Spoilers to follow.
Over 22 Million Trailer Views Is A Sure Sign Of Quality Now? That Makes Me Sad.
Straight away the film slightly ruins the whole ‘found footage’ aspect of the whole thing by showing all the production companies in front of the film’s beginning scene; consider me immersed in the illusion. TV producer guy is interviewed for, well, we never actually find out who or why this footage is being shown. Because he’s going to make a shit ton of money from having real ghost footage I guess. He states that Grave Encounters, the ghost hunting show we are about to see, was made way before all the other ghost hunting shows were popular, and was the first of its kind. Except that he claims we’re about to see episode 6, which was made in 2010. Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters started in 2002 and 2004 respectively, so it took them 8 years to make 5 episodes? I’m already reading too much into this aren’t I?
After assurances from the TV Producer that what we are about to see has only been edited for time and the footage has not been manipulated in any way, we cut to the title sequence for Grave Encounters, the television programme. It’s pretty good, in manner of other paranormal investigation programmes, it’s properly cheesy, has a great ominous voiceover, and there’s lots of slow motion wandering through graveyards and so forth. It could almost be a real TV show (albeit on that would certainly be shown on Sy-Fy or Living), except, oops, ‘Asylum’ is spelt wrong in the episode title card – ‘The Haunted Asyulm’.
We cut to the Grave Encounters team shooting the beginning of the episode. Lance Preston, our dashing host, does a good job of displaying the business like attitude one has to have towards television production, even on a show about ghosts. The way he addresses the camera and his mannerisms are a great take off of other paranormal shows. In fact I believe a lot of his character was based on Zak Bagans, the host of Ghost Adventures, a paranormal investigation show I haven’t actually seen. The rest of his team is made up of Sasha, ‘the occult’ specialist (although the way she starts shrieking and whimpering later on does make me question her credentials somewhat), Matt, the tech guy (his one characteristic – smoking), and T.C, the camera man (his one characteristic – being angry). Lance and his team are at the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital in Maryland – that state has absolutely no luck when it comes to angry ghosts. This, Blair Witch Project, and even worse, Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows. No one deserves that.
*Shudder* (In Revulsion, Not Fear, Just To Be Clear).
One interesting thing about this particular found footage film is they can make all the exposition about the history of the place part of the plot. Ghost programmes always have a local historian/owner of the building and so on to tell them the history of the place they are investigating, so it doesn’t seem quite as shoe-horned in as it could have been. Obviously the place didn’t have a happy history – basically a dumping ground for mentally unwell folk, who were all treated really poorly, as amazingly clear archive footage from the 1930s shows us. The head bitch in charge was a Dr Friedkin, who was a fan of lobotomising patients, and being an all-round general nasty bastard. He was killed by some escaped patients in 1948. And yet the place stayed open until the 1960s because…Dr Friedkin’s death was overshadowed by that of Babe Ruth. Yes, I know it’s stupid, but that’s all the film gives us.
I Don’t Care How Mental You Are, There’s No Excuse For Poetry *That* Bad.
Next we venture into the hospital; it’s a giant, imposing building. Kenny the caretaker, who is sweetly unsure of how to behave on camera, gives them the tour of the paranormal hotspots. There’s a window that opens by itself, a patient’s room scrawled with mad scribbling, a bath room where a women cut her wrists and creepy service tunnels. All in all, it’s a supernatural investigator’s wet dream, especially seeing as the hospital didn’t see fit to, oh I don’t know, throw away the blood stained bath tub, preferring instead to let it fester there for years. Lance still wants more terror though, and there’s a nice, cynical scene where they bribe the gardener to say he saw a ghost. Lance is quite the sceptic, as along as his show gets the scares (and therefore ratings), the actual ghosts, real or not, are unimportant. Houston Gray, a medium, joins the crew, he may also be the lost Bee Gee. He is full of flamboyant warnings about demons and deep sadness, and correctly points out where the girl killed herself in the bath tub, although once the camera cuts they all start laughing. Why would the network that put this show out include all these scenes of fakery in this found footage? The technical stuff is all set up and explained to us – EMF meters, EVPs, thermo imaging etc., again, this scene doesn’t feel tacked on as this is what these shows do, sometimes ad nausem. Ghost Hunters, I’m looking at you here, we don’t need a scene every single episode telling us what an EVP is. (They’ve actually stopped doing this now, but Jesus fuck it was annoying).
OK, time for ‘lock down’ – this is where all the doors are locked so the crew can’t get out during the course of the investigation. Erm, really? Kenny the caretaker wouldn’t let Matt the tech guy have a cigarette inside due to ‘fire regulations’ but locking them all in is fine? And what about the insurance the production company would have to fork out for in order for them to do something like that?
So, The Plan Is To Stare The Ghosts Into Submission?
The team start investigating. And find nothing. Even the dullest supernatural shows manage a few muffled squeaks and bangs to dress up as ghosts. These guys suck. T.C, the camera man, goes off on his own to get some establishing shots of the spooky hallways, and we get our first sign of the paranormal when a wheelchair moves on its own, although T.C doesn’t witness it. Then we get a door slamming in his face, this time he does see it. He recalls the rest of the team. They try to contact the ghost, although Lance seems more concerned with getting all the camera time, the door doesn’t slam again but a spooky noise echoes throughout the corridor. It’s the wheels on a gurney, which has been pushed over. More noises overhead lead them upstairs, they think it’s locals screwing with them. Only Sasha thinks it might be real, she does some EVP, although she doesn’t give the ghost much time to answer in between her questions. Annoyed at her rudeness, the ghost lifts her hair up, she freaks and runs away, that’ll learn her. Lance, caring, sensitive soul that he is, ignores her terror and wants to continue, no one else is too keen. His main method to entice ghosts is to shout at them (sciencey). When no more ghosts show themselves, they decide to head back to base. But they lose their way and descend into bickering and whining (I may as well just copy and paste that sentence as the rest of the review, as this makes up about a third of the film). They can’t reach Matt on the radio, but eventually make their way back.
The team start to break down their equipment and Matt goes to collect all the stationary cameras. The ghost window in the window room has been opened, Matt tries to radio the others to no avail, he then follows a spooky noise. Silly Matt. When Matt doesn’t come back the others (avec cameras, natch) go to look for him. They find his equipment, but no Matt. They split up, like true morons, and each go down a spooky corridor. T.C gets pushed down some stairs. Maybe the ghosts don’t like being shouted at in their home. According to their watches, it’s 6.30am, and Kenny is meant to be letting them out at this time. But no Kenny turns up, Matt is missing and the phone signal is out. Bad times. T.C, the only pro-active member of the group, wants to smash their way out by breaking the door down. His plan however, to gently roll a hospital bed into the door, seems like it shouldn’t work but does. The door opens. Instead of fresh and lovely outside, there is only more hospital corridor. Behind all doors, there is only more corridor.
They try the windows, but they are all barred, so they give up on that idea as T.Cs tools are in the van. I would have tried harder with the windows, surely there would have been something in the hospital to pry them open with? After all, the hospital didn’t see fit to sell any of their equipment on. More fighting and bitching, not saying I wouldn’t do the same in that situation, but it’s really hard to care about such obnoxious types. They mope around, Lance has his first of many Heather Donahue moments right to the camera. They have a nap, but are awakened by a light falling over and smashing, now they trapped in the darkness, but it does give a reason to keep filming everything, as their cameras are their source of light. They decide to go to the roof to make use of a fire escape T.C saw earlier. Once they make it there the way is sealed over. This place is a maze, it’s also like the fucking Cube (not the ITV game show, at this point the gang would probably love it if the only thing they had to do to get out of here was put up with Philip Schofield and a howling, moronic studio audience for a bit). They hear cries for help, it’s Matt, or so they think as they race into a room only to have beds thrown at them and hear some growling, they peg it down the corridor and hide out in a random room for the night, or what they would consider as night. Time is all sorts of fucked up and they are stuck in a constant loop of night time. Sasha gets ‘Hello’ carved on her back while the group sleep, these guys sure do love to sleep a lot considering the terrible danger they are in.
Imagine The Carnage If Ghost Had Gone For The Lyrics To The Entire Lionel Ritchie Song?
They briefly contact Matt and continue to search for him. More corridor wandering. They follow a white clothed figure into one of the bathrooms, and when they get there, it’s standing in a corner (hmm, where have I seen that before?) it’s a young girl, and when she turns around, her face goes into demon mode. This is where Blair Witch had it right, what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. The other plus to doing it this way is we don’t have terrible CGI inflicted on us. In the rush to get away the group lose Houston, who wanders about blindly, followed by weird noises until he gets lifted up by an invisible force, drop kicked across the corridor and killed.
When the group wake up the next, morning, I guess, they now have hospital wristbands on. Guys, stop sleeping all the time, weird stuff goes down when you sleep. More fighting, until an arm comes through a door and grabs Sasha, then they run again. They finally find Matt, dressed in a white hospital gown and gone insane, ‘we can all leave, as soon as we’re better’ he tell them. Thanks Matt, glad we wasted all that time searching for you. They are in yet another random room, sitting, sleeping and moaning. Seriously, I know I’m repeating myself a lot with this, but that’s all… they… do. Speaking of, despite these ghosts being able to manipulate space and time, a shut door sure stumps them, as whenever the gang shut themselves in yet another room, the activity stops. Shit does finally hit the fan however, when arms reach out the ceiling and wall in a manner similar to and many times worse than the opening scene of Day of the Dead to grab them, and they run. They end up in the bath tub room, the death tub is now full of blood, a figure appears out of the tub and grabs T.C, who then vanishes. Matt laughs manically. They find a lift and think if they can get down the shaft they can get down to the tunnels and then to one of the other buildings. They really think that the ghost’s reach isn’t going to extend to the tunnels, the creepiest part of the whole place? Lance goes to find something to pry the door with. He breaks off a piece of hospital bed and meets an incredibly unscary tongueless ghost. While Sasha and Lance try to fend it off, Matt has had enough of all this fighting and running nonsense and walks into the open lift shaft. Matt goes splat.
Sasha and Lance take the more practical option, the ladder, and make it down to the bottom. They make it to the tunnels and set off to find a way to another building, and freedom. To the surprise of absolutely no one except our dim heroes the same creepy shit continues to happen. Sasha vomits up a load of blood and grows increasingly weak. A fog envelopes the tunnel and once it clears Sasha is gone. Lost and alone in the tunnels Lance well, goes a bit mental, which is hard to begrudge him really, given that’s he’s been through. He kills and eats a rat. It’s made of delicious rubber. Professional to the end, he’s still hosting for the camera. He finds a door, goes through and finds a lab with lots of nasty medical equipment and lobotomy photos, he follows the sounds of screams until he finds the operation room. There’s also lots of occult stuff and that. So it wasn’t just simple lobotomies being carried out by deranged doctors, but eeeevil occult lobotomies, which is far worse than your regular common or garden variety lobotomies. Dr Friedkin shows up and debrains Lance. But that means he’s ‘all better’ now so he can go home, yay, I do love a happy ending.
Lost, Deranged, And A Serious Case Of Rat Breath – I Still Would.
There are three prongs of attack when it comes to reviewing this film – as a homage/parody of ghost hunting television programme, as a horror film, and as a found footage film. As for the first prong, and I appreciate if one isn’t a fan of these sorts of programmes, this may not interest you, and you may find the programmes themselves already beyond parody. But for me, I thought the film makers did this part well, if in a rather cynical way, which I also appreciated, as a fully paid up member of the Cynical Bastard Society. Even television programmes about ghosts and the supernatural are just that, television programmes, and therefore business must always take precedent over the mystical, something the film portrays well. Second prong; is it scary? Well…no. The creepiest bits were early on, with the more subtle scares – the small movements and the things that you catch out of the corner of your eye, a la Paranormal Activity. But for me, once they bring in hell in a hand basket, with the bad CGI demons, any tension the film makers might have built up goes completely out the window. Especially with the dull repetition of; the group fight, scary thing happens, they run, lock themselves in a random room, the group fight, scary thing happens, they run…That’s just boring. I know many people aren’t fans of the Paranormal Activity franchise (Lord knows, I don’t think it’s perfect by any means) because ‘nothing happens’, but for me, had that film showed the demon full frontal (there’s a pleasant image) it would have ruined it for me. Nothing is scarier than what you can conjure up in your own mind, as I’ve said before. That’s partly why ghost hunting shows work – the team on the show hear a strange noise, we all know it’s probably a car back firing or something but there’s always the ‘what if’ factor. The concept of being locked in an abandoned loony bin was chilling enough be itself, I don’t think it needed to up the ante quiet so much with the CGI overkill and occult lobotomies. It’s nowhere near as grim and unrelenting as the Granddaddy of found footage horror films, Cannibal Holocaust, but on its own terms it did have a couple of moments. As for prong the last, is it a good found footage film? Yeah…kind of. As mentioned, it wasn’t particularly scary, but it is a good concept for a found footage film. They have reasons to keep filming (initially because they’re filming their show, later because they need the light), which is often a reason why found footage films can be frustrating – why the fuck these idiots are still filming themselves having a horrible time of it. We’re in serious danger of reaching found footage film fatigue right now, there seems to be so many of them, so is Grave Encounters a passable entry into the oeuvre? Well, I use my own personal bar to judge found footage films; did it fuck me off as much as the ending of The Last Broadcast (made in 1998, seen by many as the predecessor to Blair Witch Project, gut wrenchingly bad ending)? The answer is no. If you still haven’t had your fill of found footage films, it’s definitely worth a watch. And with that, on to the next…that was a Ghost Hunters reference by the way. Christ, I’m cool.
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