Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Grave Encounters (2011)

While the title of this independent Canadian effort seems to infer some straight-to-video disaster with faint allures of J-Horror, it is actually meant as a crude parody of paranormal investigation shows, the eminently poor quality of the wordplay being a direct window into the two directors’ contempt for the many bargain-basement Ghostbusters currently saturating the airwaves. Adamant on exposing the charlatanism inherent to their practices, the Vicious Brothers hence create their own fictitious crew of witless opportunists and have them partake in a real-life nightmare meant to expunge their sins. Shot entirely from a subjective point of view and capitalizing on the “found footage” gimmick, Grave Encounters is a direct heir to The Blair Witch Project, which it updates through the use of truly claustrophobic settings and a constantly widening offscreen space. The result is nothing original, but it is quite effective, with a minimal amount of occult events producing maximal effect. Relentlessly paced, with no wiggle room left for the entrapped protagonists, it also boasts a rare quality amongst contemporary horror films: the ability to actually scare you.

Forced attrition is the wage of witless ghost hunters.

The titular TV show is the brainchild of con artist Lance Preston, whose alleged childhood brush with the occult is the hook for his hokey ghost-hunting concept. This is all explained through an introductory interview with one of the show’s producers who shares an hilarious promo in which Preston tells of his “traumatic” background and solemnly invites the viewer for some “grave encounters”. The producer then goes on to explain the show’s popularity and hint at the horrific events that caused its untimely end. Apparently, something went awry in the process of filming the sixth episode, something that decimated the crew, leaving their raw footage as only testimony of their ordeal. Edited down from 76 hours, the following 90-minute account of the events gives us a privileged insight into what actually happened. We thus get to see Preston and the gang conducting preliminary interviews and setting up their gear for an overnight lock-inside the asbestos-filled walls of a disaffected mental asylum. Using unconvincing testimony from various caretakers, some of which is literally made-up, they gather some highly unlikely proof for the alleged haunting of the building by former patients. But despite everybody’s initial skepticism, ghosts really do manifest during the night, senselessly tormenting the film crew for our own sadistic pleasure. 

Anchoring the story in the “authentic” world of reality TV, the Vicious Brothers’ bid for verisimilitude is established very early through the use of constant re-framing and re-takes, numerous interventions from the crew and the presence of blurred faces to indicate non-cooperative subjects. It’s rarely pretty, but it gives the film the raw quality necessary to formulate a relevant critique of reality TV aesthetics and allow terror to take a truly tangible form, which the derelict setting exacerbates to wild extremes. An absolute wet dream for urban explorers, the disaffected Riverview Hospital hypnotically draws you in its infected bowels alongside the protagonists, with which we share a kindred fascination for its macabre history. As such, it proves to be the primary vector of the film’s creepy atmosphere and an economical way for the filmmakers to create affect through simple suggestion. And while derelict mental institutions are slowly becoming overdetermined horror settings, they will always retain a genuinely creepy quality. Not because they house the most singular elements of our society, but because they suggest wild extremes in doctor/patient relationships, undue imprisonment and experimental surgery meant to benefit self-seeking eccentrics over helpless Others. This makes the perspective of tortured souls looking for retribution all the more tangible, not unlike the unwavering feeling of entrapment that one derives from being clustered within its walls like the poor souls of old. In that sense, Grave Encounters reminded me of Session 9, another low-budget horror effort capitalizing on the asylum setting for maximal affect. Both using oppressive ruins as ready-made sources of terror, they effortlessly convey a similar feeling of claustrophobia while focusing on the disturbing imprint from barbaric practices past. Here, every element of décor is bone-chilling, from the crayon-covered walls to the empty bathtubs and the stainless steel gurneys, all remnants of a tortured past constantly trying to emerge into the light of day, creating as many hideouts for angry ghosts as there are evidences of previous foul play.

Approximate framing a necessary ill for success
in the world of "found footage" films.

Further cultivating verisimilitude in a bid for increasingly tangible terror, the film features a smart dosage of parody, which allows for a relevant critique of TV excess that eludes the traps of absurdist flamboyance. Hence, the protagonists are depicted as properly vacuous and self-serving while retaining a certain measure of humanity necessary to make us partake in their plight. As for the exploration of their deceitful ghost-hunting methods, it is achieved in a fun, but level-headed way that prevents the film from transforming into a self-defeating farce. This is initially achieved in a rather seamless manner, through casual interviews with active caretakers who mention various generic symptoms of ghostly possession (cold breezes, open windows…), hinting at supernatural presence without actually making verifiable claims. The film crew then proceeds to mount cameras near “paranormal hotspots” in order to capture elusive specters on film. The protagonists' seamless usage of that perplexing expression proves quite useful in appraising the semi-serious nature of their endeavor, which allows them to coin hokey technical terms to better substantiate their outlandish "beliefs". The ongoing parody of their methods then continues with the introduction of the paranormal investigator’s toolkit, complete with many dubious contraptions that will find renewed relevance along the way as platforms for ghostly manifestations. In the end, while these colorful elements of ghost-hunting lore all convey a definite pictorial quality to the characters and their craft, their limited originality prevents any slip in realism. Even when self-promoter Preston and phony medium Houston Gray start challenging each other for the best conjuring method caught on tape, we are spared any bothersome hysterics that might’ve hindered the sense of terror deriving from the film’s realistic approach. Such restraint from the directors is crucial in cultivating the appropriate mood, and it is admirably achieved throughout.  

Further taking advantage of its limited budget by cashing in on the intangible sense of menace permeating the main set, the film creates unbearable tension through absence alone. Waiting incessantly for the first occult event to grace the screen, we are constantly left scrutinizing the depth of field in search of an elusive presence, becoming increasingly edgy from the sheer certainty, but constant withholding of impending horror. When forces from beyond finally do manifest, their actions are initially quite tame, almost playful. Hence, we see a wheelchair moving forward almost imperceptibly in a empty corridor, then the hair of a crew member swerving above her head. We derive some mild unease with such unwarranted presence, early goosebumps to prepare us for the following massacre.  That said, things quickly take a turn for the worst when another crew member is pushed down a flight of stairs, paving the way for a literal descent into Hell as deformed ghouls start dropping from the ceiling, flash-banging and lobotomizing those unfortunate enough to stand in their path. Pacing is key to creating affect here, as we slowly become involved in the protagonists' plunge into madness, but it can only be achieved through careful manipulation of the audience. Evidently, the "found footage" gimmick provides immediate spectator expectations, informing us of the protagonists' demise even before their first appearance onscreen. While causing obvious dramatic limitations, this gives a chance for skillful directors to effortlessly shape our spectatorial experience. Here, the Vicious Brothers constantly keep us on our toes by cleverly withholding the realization of our expectations and by using gradation in order to catalyze them for greater effect. While these techniques allow us to seamlessly step into the diegetic world, they are also effective against the protagonists, whose maddening experience becomes equally gradual and inevitable as the turn of an oiled screw driven by a relentless power drill, which aggressively causes their forced attrition.

Widening offscreen space is key
to manipulating spectator expectations.

While it is seamlessly cultivated through the very emptiness of the film’s vast settings, absence is also conveyed cinematographically through the creation of a particularly vast offscreen space. Featuring many interlocking white corridors lined up with doors to patient cells, it seems like every shot exudes a constant sense of impending menace stemming from all edges of the frame (even the upper one, as the diegetic ghouls can also drop from the ceiling). Hence, a simple static shot taken from the middle of a corridor is bursting with a disturbing sense of dread, creating depth in the scenery from the mere suggestion of a lurking monster. It’s really simple stuff, but so are the mechanics of fear when stripped to its bare bones by such a disturbingly realistic effort. As the story unfolds, offscreen space is widened even more as the characters’ field of vision is systematically narrowed by the use of increasingly inaccurate equipment. The night-vision lens, for example, merely creates additional offscreen space by providing a mere halo of light around which darkness accumulates, simultaneously providing cover for lurking entities and impairing the protagonists' progression through their oppressive surroundings. Shadows are thus literally threatening to engulf the protagonists as they are lured toward the asylum's endless underground tunnels, forced into a dark void that threatens to penetrate their minds like the nasty orbitoclasts of early brain surgeons. Enduring the ordeal alongside them, ours then become a truly harrowing experience in dreadful expectations and the perfect materialization of urban exploration gone awry.

Unfortunately for this surprisingly cost-effective piece of genre filmmaking, it features a complacent  screenplay that shamelessly invokes otherworldly logic to make sense of all inexplicable phenomena plaguing the characters. Case is point is when the exasperated film crew decides to look for a way out of the asylum. After busting down the door from which they originally entered, they are inexplicably faced with yet another empty corridor. After following a sign indicating the way to the roof, they are faced with a dead-end. Never bothering to provide a satisfactory rationale for such events other to say that they imply some ghostly shenanigans, The Vicious Brothers unduly trap their protagonists and compromise all of their chances for survival, making them akin to the mindless cannon fodder of slasher films. And while such screenwriting shortcomings could be said to derive from the "found footage" format, with our intimate knowledge of the protagonists' fate forcing the directors to deprive their characters of any fighting chance, I'm sure that any competent screenwriter would beg to differ. Especially since there are so many interesting things to do with dark exteriors, most important of which is the preservation of the film's naturalistic approach to its outlandish material...

Darkness clamps down on the protagonists,
engulfing the spectator alongside them.

All in all, while the film doesn’t transcend the fairly rigid mold from which it originates, it is quite effective in fulfilling its humble objectives. The characters are true-to-life and their ordeal bears definite airs of verisimilitude, allowing for the creation of genuine terror from nearly nothing at all, empty settings and empty pockets. A very satisfying effort from Canadian duo The Vicious Brothers.

3/5  Despite a lack of originality and a barren premise, Grave Encounters proves to be ruthlessly cost-effective in its ability to generate heartfelt onscreen terror.