I fell in love with movies like Session 9 and the 1999 remake of House On Haunted Hill quite accidentally. I didn’t realize that my love of this horror sub-genre was even alive in me. I think up until the point when I saw Session 9 in 2007, had I been pressed, I would have said that my favorite flavor of horror movies was really anything with a priest.
But the insane beckoned. Lovecraft more or less played with this idea. One of his favorite devices was to drive his characters mad by prolonged exposure to fear and larger-than-life realizations of older-than-history evil. Movies like Session 9 and House on Haunted Hill however use insanity itself to promote fear. Shutter Island made moves in this direction, but kept it firmly within the realm of the psychological. This tends to disappoint, because things really get interesting, I think, when the supernatural get in on the game. As it turns out, I fell in love with this genre so thoroughly, I dedicated a Halloween mixtape to it.
Grave Encounters hits all the right notes, even if it does take a few beats to get going. I found a new favorite movie, not just because of the combination of the insane and the supernatural, not just because it was filmed on location at an abandoned insane asylum, and not just because there are ghosts and hints of Satanic worship. One of the reasons this smart film won me over was almost a negation of a negative: real-life ghost hunters and paranormal investigators make my skin crawl, and here they are portrayed as the third-rate mentalists that most of them really are.
The plot feels nauseatingly familiar at the beginning: a reality television producer is explaining to an unseen interviewer that the new show Grave Encounters had been gaining momentum in its first season as a promising network vehicle. The investigators, armed with every ridiculous scientific instrument that you would expect, had recently sent themselves off for a lock down in an abandoned psyche ward known for ghostly sightings and bumps-in-the-night to use for their next episode. Their footage and equipment was found the next day, they were not. Now let’s watch their entirely unaltered footage. (Yawn.)
Found footage has been played absolutely to death. I don’t know if Blair Witch was the first film to really exploit this faux-vérité crevice of the horror genre, but pretty much every scary movie since that employs this look-at-this-scary-footage-we-found approach comes off as just another Blair Witch knockoff. The best recent example I can think of where this method somehow takes more than it gives is George Romero’s regrettable Diary of the Dead. (“Why are you still filming this? Is this about your ego?”) Wafts of this staleness do come across in the opening moments of Grave Encounters—Oh, Jesus, I thought at the beginning, two bad tastes that taste even worse together: ghost hunters and found footage—but thankfully the filmmakers found a way to use these tropes to their advantage in delightfully frightening (if not entirely novel) ways. More importantly, they didn’t play the psychological claustrophobia card. (There are mercifully few sniveling confessions and survivors ganging up on each other.) The night-vision cam, wait-for-it suspense that rang out loud and clear in the first Paranormal Activity is present here. In a way, the makers of Grave Encounters maximized the found footage oeuvre to its fullest without somehow falling into any of its myriad traps. They do it at a level of professionalism found recently only in Rec and The Last Exorcism, and they take it to some interesting places indeed. Grave Encounters is a clever little machine, something the makers seem to go out of their way to trick you into doubting at the beginning.
The homages to Session 9 and House on Haunted Hill are easy to spot. At one point right before the shit hits the fan, one of the camera jockeys filming some stock footage of dark hallways stumbles upon a passage with a wheelchair blocking his way. This is a nod, I believe, to the iconic opening twenty seconds of Session 9. (In fact, the now-destroyed Danvers State Hospital, where Session 9 was filmed and takes place, is directly named in the first ten minutes of Grave Encounters.) Later in the film, the show’s host winds up face-to-face with a surgical procedure from another era. The doctor and attending nurses slowly look up from the patient to address the terrified host. This is an obvious reference to House on Haunted Hill‘s excellent there-goes-the-game-show-hostess scene, when a team of medics take a break from torturing a dying patient to gaze up at their next victim (the poor Miss Marr), but they are only visible (of course) through her hand-held video camera.
I swear to God I did not see most of the Boo! moments coming. The score helpfully warns you right before some new shit is about to go down, but every surprise is somehow more surprising than you might expect. They really love to make the bad guys scream in your face, something missing from all but the best of the truly scary movies. (I watched it alone in the dark, and I screamed out at least twice, and I’m made of fucking steel when it comes to scary movies.) The revelation at the end comes not a moment too late or too early, left me completely satisfied.
Grave Encounters is a fucking scary movie. But more than that, it is an entertaining movie. It’s beautiful to look at, fun to follow, and difficult to anticipate. The Vicious Brothers deserve every accolade they get for their freshman effort, and I simply can’t wait to see what they come up with next.