[Warning: Here there be spoilers.]
I’ve been going in and out of wanting to write a review for this movie. I’m not entirely sure what I’m afraid of. That it’s not as good as I still think it is? That the review won’t do it justice? (Entirely possible. I’m still new at this.) I mean, it’s not perfect or anything, but I do get intimidated by good horror movies more than I do by explaining what’s wrong with the not-so-good ones.
For people with found-footage fatigue, I’m sure movies like GRAVE ENCOUNTERS don’t really help that, but I first saw GRAVE ENCOUNTERS when I opened my Netflix account, so I hadn’t watched nearly enough bad found-footage at the time to make me weary of the subgenre. And frankly, I have a fondness for that kind of low-budget horror, because it usually forces the film-makers to get creative with effects or eliminate them completely.
It’s worth noting that the effects of GRAVE ENCOUNTERS are its weakest points. They reference the obviously computer-generated effects in the sequel (please, miss that one—it offers nothing new, plus a dose of juvenile humor it didn’t need). They’re disappointing on every level, because in video that’s supposed to look real—kind of the whole conceit—the worst thing you can possibly do is show something that doesn’t look real. In the slight fuzziness and filter of movies, you can get away with minor CGI effects that you simply can’t in found-footage. It doesn’t matter how good the cameras are that they’re using. The slightest whiff of CGI ends up reading as fake, which takes a viewer out of the moment. If you’re going to use CGI, you’ve got to be dead careful. And the makers of GRAVE ENCOUNTERS were not. They would have benefited much more from judicious makeup, props, and unsettling acting rather than pay a small fortune on a small budget to get bad CGI.
But when they’re not stumbling in the computer-generated arena, GRAVE ENCOUNTERS is a solid offering in the found-footage arena, and it doesn’t—in my opinion—suffer from the same ending malady as most found-footage. And frankly, most horror.
Before even starting, GRAVE ENCOUNTERS ticks off a number of boxes that guarantee I’m more likely to enjoy it. For one, it got in my queue early, which means more things get compared to it instead of the other way around. I’d already watched a ton of horror movies by this time, between my college-days movie buying and back when FearNet was streaming, so I didn’t approach it in a vacuum. But other than BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and possibly PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (can’t really remember the timing), I hadn’t seen a ton of found-footage at the time. That gives it an automatic leg-up over its competition. But it’s stood up over time in spite of everything I’ve watched since.
Another point in its favor is the setting. I’m a sucker for psych ward horror, even though it’s often bad and ableist as hell. But being a person with mental illness who processes things through fiction, I’m entitled to like what I like. There are a lot of horrifying things about mental illness and a lot of horrifying things about what people have done to people with mental illness. GRAVE ENCOUNTERS has a few problematic moments, but it’s mostly about what was done to the people who were kept there rather than the mentally ill themselves being the monsters, and the movie makes everything more about setting, the building itself more the monster that keeps haunted people.
Abandoned buildings are amazing in general. If you haven’t seen Abandoned America’s photographs, I recommend checking them out. The movie probably only uses about three hallways and changes them just enough to make it seem like the gigantic building we see it is on the outside, but they also manage to convey a sense of claustrophobia and that disorienting feeling when you get lost—or worse, when things aren’t where they should be. Probably one of the more effective scenes is where they break down the front door, and there’s just more hallway. Then when they’re trying to get to the roof, and there’s just a wall halfway up the last set of stairs. This is why I like to emphasize practical effects. All they needed was a freaking wall to creep me the fuck out. If you’ve ever been lost, you know what that panic feels like. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. Like that feeling you left your wallet or purse somewhere, but it doesn’t go away.
I feel like the movie really used its set to its full advantage, as simple as it was. And at its best, the scares themselves were simple. In found-footage, those work because of the conceit that everything is actually happening. A window opening by itself. Someone you don’t see pushing you down the stairs. A wheelchair rolling by itself. Blood in a bathtub. Waking up to patient ID bracelets on your wrists. Fog rolling in and people disappearing when it rolls out. Keep it simple in found-footage, and you’ll get a lot more mileage than a cheap-looking eye-and-mouth effects.
Like good found-footage, the cast doesn’t actually distinguish itself much. They’re a cast of regular people, the kind you would see on any reality TV show. The only one who feels polished is the lead, and since he’s the lead of a television show and needs a certain amount of charisma, that wouldn’t be unusual. Everyone’s slightly annoying at different times, but again, we’re watching footage of a television show that wouldn’t have actually made it onto the show.
When people get legitimately scared, they do get shrill. When people are legitimately exhausted, they do get emotional and snappish. And when they freak out, they do lash out. There wasn’t a moment in the movie when I felt the reactions weren’t real. They may not have been attractive or cultivated like in most other movies, but they were real, which is the best you can ask from found-footage.
One of my favorite moments is near the end, when Lance and Sasha are trying to look for a way out in the tunnels below the hospital. Sasha was sick, which being constantly scared, not sleeping enough, and not eating enough only exacerbated. She falls to the ground, vomiting blood, and just wails, “I want my mom!” It’s a striking scene in the movie, because the blood wasn’t CGI. You know she’s dying slowly and painfully and she’s scared and miserable, and you feel it. My heart aches every time she cries like that, because come on, if you’re honest with yourself, you’d probably say the exact same thing (unless your mom sucked, in which case I’m sorry—choose your own loved one).
Now, I said that the ending didn’t suffer from the usual dissatisfaction malady of other found-footage and horror movies, and it doesn’t. It’s vague. I’ll say that. But I didn’t find myself wanting more from it. I thought it was exactly the ending it needed. And how often do I say that about horror? (Answer: Rarely.)
So if you’re looking for some good found-footage horror in the midst of an oversaturated subgenre, GRAVE ENCOUNTERS really is worth your time. If you forgive it for the bad CGI and stay for the creepy building, you’ll likely leave satisfied.