Found Footage Fave: Grave Encounters (SPOILERS!!)

Reason for filming: A team of paranormal investigators filming footage for a new TV series spends the night in a haunted asylum and disappears. The footage they shot is now being shown to the public.

What’s the horror: ghosts, demons, supernatural

Does the dog die? No animal cruelty, except for one very unfortunate rat

Gore factor: very little.

Re-watch scale: Frequent re-watch. This movie is one of the better-known and better-received found footage films for good reason. It’s good old-fashioned scary haunted house fun with a new twist.

SPOILERS below!!! Don’t scroll if you don’t want to know.

Coming out as it did in 2011, Grave Encounters suffered from getting lumped in with the glut of found-footage films that came out after the success of Paranormal Activity revitalized the genre. Critics in particular were sick of the format, and the movie received middling reviews. But since then it has developed a reputation online and become a favorite of many found-footage fans – any horror film is going to have its detractors, found footage in particular, but this is one that is more universally praised than most others nowadays. Personally, I appreciate it as a pretty standard haunted-house flick, that doesn’t try to do too much except create scares, and the pacing builds suspense that has a real payoff at the end of it.

The “Grave Encounters” crew

At the time, the Vicious Brothers, who wrote and directed the film, couldn’t believe that no one had made a found-footage film about a paranormal TV reality series, so they set out to be the first. Of all the reasons for keeping the film rolling during a found-footage flick, the documentary premise is the most reasonable, so it gets used a lot, but Grave Encounters takes that extra step of making it a professional documentary rather than just a bunch of college kids or film students working on a project. This is an episode of what we’re told is an actual TV show – albeit one that never got a chance to air as the disappearance of the crew happened in its first season – and it approaches the task of filming inside this supposedly haunted asylum professionally, which makes a huge difference.

T.j.’s about to get got

One of my biggest pet peeves of found footage films with a documentary premise is when the movie doesn’t make even the most basic effort to create the sense that a real documentary is being filmed. This happens quite often when the cast is younger; I’ve already written about Devil’s Pass (which is, admittedly, a huge favorite of most found-footage fans) which is supposedly a student project but which involves seemingly hours of footage where the student in charge films members of the team hanging out, flirting, and joking around – and doing so from the very beginning, not just after things have gone wrong under the pretense that they want to document their own downfall so people will know what happened. She just seems to think the team’s childish banter and petty arguments are interesting. They are not. The entire team acts like spoiled preteens throughout the whole event – which just isn’t believable if they’re supposedly filming a documentary. Another pet peeve of mine is when a student is supposedly making a documentary, but they go around interviewing people while wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a tank top. Come on. Who would really do that? Without fail these “documentarians’ will also sit down on a bench or a couch directly next to their interview subject so that they’re in the shot at all times – again, not professional at all, especially when you’re dressed like you’re heading out for a day at the beach. While it’s not unusual for an interviewer to also be seen during a discussion, that’s usually done with a second camera trained on them to be intercut later; if that isn’t an option, then a voice off-camera asking the questions is perfectly acceptable. Grr. Moving on.

Lance Preston interviewing two people who’ve seen ghosts in the asylum – he’s at least wearing long pants and a jacket

There are two types of documentary/found-footage films: the ‘found’ footage of a documentary that was in the process of being made when the crew disappeared, and a tragic event that happened in the past and is being made into a documentary film based on found footage – also known as a mockumentary. Grave Encounters is presented in the first format: although we get a clip at the start of the film from a TV producer explaining the setup – this was a team who disappeared halfway through filming their first season, everything you’re going to see is, real, etc. etc. – the rest of the movie plays out as if we’re simply watching the footage as it was recorded and as things go downhill for the people involved. This is by far the more common approach, and Grave Encounters handles it quite well.

If only they’d stayed outside…

So after our introductory blurb from the producer, we’re off to the races. We start with the background material the team filmed before entering the haunted asylum they’ve decided to spend the night in; it’s a skeleton crew, with two cameras, a sound technician, the host, and a psychic. Thanks to the two-camera team, there’s a reason for behind the scenes footage to also get filmed, and from that we get the idea that no one involved really believes in ghosts and is accustomed to manufacturing scares in the usual manner – exaggerating and over-analyzing every little sound or shadow, and leading the audience through suggestion and interpretation. We even see the host pay a gardener to say he’s seen ghosts on the property, and in my opinion the actor who played this bit role is a real MVP; the way he looks dead-eyed into the distance and says in a perfect monotone, “Yes. It was really scary,” is a corker.

There are more interviews before the team locks themselves in for the night: a caretaker, a contractor who was hired for repairs and abandoned the task due to strange disturbances, a historian who provides background information about the asylum. There’s some supposedly historic footage of the asylum and its patients that isn’t particularly effective, but it doesn’t detract too much from the overall premise, and hey, they tried. Soon enough, though, we get down to business, and the team has the caretaker lock them in so they can film the goings-on. I always have to suspend my disbelief when characters in movies like this take that particularly stupid extra step of truly locking themselves in somewhere with no way to escape – I mean, if you’re willing to pay people to pretend they’ve seen ghosts on the property, you clearly aren’t above pretending to be locked in when you aren’t, but for the movie to work, I guess it has to be done (although not really – couldn’t the ghosts just lock you in later? But I digress). Through this plot point we also get the trope of oh, no, our cell phones won’t work, and the oh, no, I left some equipment that 100% totally would have helped us get out of this situation in the car, but again, I’ll allow it. You’ve gotta explain why your characters don’t just call 911 or break a window somehow.

Yep

One of the things Grave Encounters does particularly well is utilize the setting. I’ve seen a ton of found footage films in cool abandoned settings that fail to use them to full effect, but GE is that rare movie that manages to use the building itself as its own character, and it does so effectively. When the team first enters the asylum, it is deadly quiet, but by the end it is cacophonous with evil laughs, screams, moans, and the low hum of what might be electroshock therapies or the wheels of gurneys. Every time I watch this movie I assign myself the task of really paying attention to just when and how the building starts to come alive, but because so much else is going on with the team I forget to do so every single time. When it starts, I make note of how quiet everything is, and the next thing I know, they’re surrounded by a chorus of inhuman sounds. Lance Preston, the host, makes note at some point that it seems as if the building is shifting and changing around them, which is true – hallways appear where before there were none, slams and bangs happen above them and below, or in rooms they just exited, and at one point, the characters even discover that hospital ID bracelets have appeared on their wrists, with their correct names and birthdates. Yes, there are physical ghosts and demons about, but it’s beyond that – the actual building itself is reacting to their presence, with freaky, tragic results.

But let’s talk about those ghosts and demons. They’re…not great. The cheesy CGI effect of expanding someone’s eyes and mouth gets lots of use here, and while it freaked me out the first time saw the movie, I’ve seen the same effect so often since that it no longer works. But there are a few good jump scares involving actual demons that we can see and hear, and that’s not something found-footage movies typically even attempt, so I appreciate the effort. Some of the setups are really obvious – like the bathtub where a woman was known to kill herself that, of course, later fills with blood and drags one of the team down into it – but so often in found footage films scares are set up that never deliver that it’s refreshing to watch a movie that actually does so. More problematic is the use of night vision filming, which is necessary for believability but is also annoying. Still, Grave Encounters has taken this into account, and does the best it can within that limitation, including dropping the construct whenever possible. The fact that the film crew also set up several stationary cameras is put to good use as well.

There’s a LOT of this

The characters here are also well-done. They’re not all likeable – T.J. the cameraman, does way too much shouting and arguing, which gets old quickly; and both Lance and the psychic James Houston are appropriately sleazy for people who are faking hauntings and being haunted. But you can forgive T.J. for being pissed off the entire time since he was the first one to point out the stupidity of being locked inside for real, especially when Lance did so without giving him a chance to bring his toolbox into the building, which most likely would have kept them alive. And while Lance’s sleaziness is justified given his drive to create a successful TV show, Houston’s is so overdone that it’s actually pretty amusing.

James Houston

And Sasha, the other cameraperson, comes in like a badass but is ready to run at the first sign of paranormal activity; she also provides another one of my favorite LOLs early on when she’s sitting in a room that is covered from all four walls and floor to ceiling with hand-scrawled messages and she asks the question, as if talking to the author directly: What are you trying to say? I can’t help but imagine a tortured spirit balling its ghostly hands into fists and thinking, bitch, I spent years writing it all over the damn walls, what more do you want?

But what does it mean?

GE starts out slow, but once the first crewmember gets got it kicks up the pace nicely, with plenty of jump scares, kills, and other surprises to keep things rolling. However, once it’s down to just Sasha and Lance, it slows down to a crawl for some reason. Sasha starts feeling sick and feverish and puking up blood only to disappear in a massive fog that overtakes the two in the bowels of the building where they’re trying to hide – so what was all that sickness about anyway? It never leads to anything, so I always wonder why it was necessary.

And once Sasha has vanished, we spend way too much time with Lance huddling in that same hallway while being taunted by the spirits all around him, screaming and laughing while he slowly goes insane. I mean, a few seconds of this is effective, but do we really need to see him whispering into his tape recorder and playing back the same screams and laughs we’ve been hearing without it, or watch him hunt down and smash a rat so he can eat it greedily? I would argue that we do not, and I would much rather the movie get to the point – which is when all of a sudden Lance looks up and sees a door at the end of the tunnel he’s in.

He goes through it, and we get a nice callback to the footage we saw at the beginning of the film when the historian was telling us about the history of the place. There was a mad scientist there, of course, who was performing experiments and forced lobotomies on his patients, and on the other side of the door Lance opens, the mad doctor is right there, still operating. For added effect we also see a lot of pentagrams and other occult-like artifacts scattered about, and as the camera Lance is still using (purportedly to use its light) swings back to the doctor, he does the creepy CGI face change and swarms the camera. Cut to Lance, blood dripping down his face and blinking rapidly, filming himself weakly reciting the closing quip he’s been using with every episode: “Until next time, I’m Lance Preston with Grave Encounters.” And cut. Well done team!

There’s a sequel that really isn’t worth much; simply titled Grave Encounters 2, it’s basically a new group of characters sneaking into the asylum and filming with some extra CGI effects and scares thrown in for good measure. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but in my opinion you’re better off just re-watching the original Grave Encounters again. It’s entertaining found-footage haunted-house fun.

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