On the sixth day of Halloween, Zak Bagans gave to me: Grave Encounters (The Vicious Brothers, 2011)
In my last post, I mentioned that today I was going to be reviewing what may be the most serious ghost-hunting TV show parody on record. Grave Encounters is a found footage film in the style of “we went ghost hunting and it went really, really, far south,” –which is a decently common premise for this genre.
Ghost hunting reality show Grave Encounters goes into an unnamed abandoned mental asylum to shoot footage for their sixth episode. Expecting to capture nothing, the crew is surprised to find that this building isn’t as abandoned as it seems. This surprise quickly turns to terror, as the spirits of the asylum become increasingly aggressive towards the crew, who is locked in the building. As members start to go missing, the remaining crew must find a way out of the asylum: their lives depend on it.
a royale with cheese
The first time I watched Grave Encounters , I honestly wasn’t expecting much. I like found footage and I like ghost hunting, so this seemed like a fun intersection. It didn’t have thrilling reviews, so I went in anticipating it to be so-so at best. I wouldn’t say it blew me out of the water, but Grave Encounters was more entertaining than I anticipated.
Think about it like this: Grave Encounters is like eating a nice burger. Like, it’s ultimately just a burger- nothing special or wildly creative. But even though it was simple, the burger was still tasty and left you feeling satisfied. That’s what you’re getting with Grave Encounters. It’s a really basic set-up with a decently predictable plot: but it’s done with a modicum of creativity, and gives you exactly what you came for.
Now there is one major caveat to this enjoyment, but we’ll get to that later.
Eat your heart out, Zak Bagans
So to be fair, Grave Encounters isn’t a parody of ghost hunting shows (despite what I said), and is fully intended to be a horror movie. It just happens to include a ghost hunting TV crew. But let me tell you: Grave Encounters NAILS it.
I am a ghost show fanatic. Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters International, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Mine, Deep South Paranormal, Paranormal Witness, The Haunted, Most Haunted, Haunted Collector, Dead Files: I’ve watched ‘em all, and not even ironically. I’m ghost trash, and I’m too deep in it to be ashamed.
I just can’t get over just how pitch-perfect Grave Encounters’ depiction of cable ghost hunting shows is. It’s dead-on, no pun intended. From the wardrobe, the “intense” host, the “X” spots: the directors did their research. It’s almost a pastiche of Ghost Adventures, to the letter. If you don’t believe me, YouTube literally any episode of GA and watch the first five minutes of any episode—you’ll immediately see where the directors were pulling from.
So that’s one thing I really love of Grave Encounters. But remember that caveat I mentioned?
Can we let the asylum trope die please
The one issue I have with this movie (and the horror genre at large) is the constant use of mental asylums and mentally ill people as fodder for scares. Movies that use “patients” as villains/spooks places the idea that mentally ill people are “dangerous” or “scary” into the minds of viewers. It prevents them from being seen as people, which leads to a host of problems in the real world.
And if you think I’m being “sensitive”, do a little research on the state of mental health resources in the U.S. or the historic perception of individuals with mental illnesses. It’s an ongoing issue that affects millions of people, and the constant barrage of “spooky crazy people” come Halloween time does nothing but cause harm.
To be fair, Grave Encounters does blame most of the spooky shit on the asylum’s abusive head doctor who mistreated his patients, with a healthy dash of black magic mixed in. But still, unnamed anonymous “mental health ghosts” are still the primary actors in the horror that ensues, and “going crazy” is a strong theme. So in this respect, Grave Encounters gets a failing mark from me.
Also c’mon directors: y’all are a creative bunch. Can’t you think of another setting? This shit is old and tired and harmful.
(I’ve included some articles on mental health and media perceptions in the further reading section. If you’re a horror fan, please read them.)
oh stretchy-mouth ghost, we meet again.
While I wish the directors had taken their sensibilities to literally any other “haunted location” than an asylum, this movie does some things rather well.
Blair Witch Project may have been the first big found-footage movie, but it was rough around the edges in some respects. Grave Encounters has a little more finesse to it. There’s less Yelling in Places © and less shaky-cam.
Grave Encounters also uses the static shot to wicked effect. Part of the footage we see is from stationary cameras set up by the film crew, so they are “neutral” in the sense that they aren’t allied to a POV/character. These shots are still and long in duration, and provide no visual or aural cues to the audience as to what we should be looking at or waiting for. So when something happens, we’re genuinely caught off guard.
Grave Encounters makes silence and stillness terrifying. There are a couple brilliant shots–watch out for wheelchairs–that are mega-spooky. But Grave Encounters is equal parts tense silence as it is jump scares. There are plenty of very stereotypical ~ghosty~ moments: things moving suddenly on their own, stretchy-mouthed ghouls, etc. Some of them are cheap scares, others are not. Remember folks: this is just a burger.
But there is one aspect to Grave Encounters that makes this burger extra tasty. Spoilers below.
—-Spooky, Spooky, Spoilers—-
Grave Encounters takes the “haunted building” movie to another level by making the building itself a character. The ghost aspects of this film- stuff moving, apparitions, weird noises- are great, but standard fare. The fact that the building itself moves and changes? Talk about a hostile work environment. That’s some Hogwarts-level House of Leaves shit, and I love it. It was a creative touch that pushed Grave Encounters from the realm of “Standard Paranormal Movie” into the realm of “They Might Be Onto Something Here.”It also involves no “mental patient” awfulness, thank god.
See kids? Creativity.
the most mixed of bags
If this movie was in any place but an asylum, it would get a pretty solid 4/5 from me. It balances tension with jump scares well, has some moments of real creativity, and is all around spooky.
Like I mentioned before, the first time I watched this movie I really enjoyed it. I was a kid, and didn’t understand the harm in some of the images and themes it used. So in that regard, it’s a fun, tasty burger/movie, if you push all the bad parts to the side.
But art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the constant mishandling of mental illness and mental health institutions in horror films just adds to a larger problem. Watching this now (as someone who was formally diagnosed with a mental illness in the years after I first watched it), I can still enjoy it on a certain level, but am now deeply aware of the larger genre that this movie is situated in and the issues it causes. Like I stated above, I think it does some things well: but I will not defend it when it comes to the setting.
So, dear reader- take this review as you will. I’m not going to tell you to watch it or not watch it, because you can judge for yourself as to whether or not the good outweighs the bad with Grave Encounters.
I have some other movies on this list that are scary, creative, and not problematic, so if you’re really trying to avoid shit like this, I 100% understand, and can provide you with some better fare.
So tomorrow, come hang out with me as I discuss (another!) movie filmed in my home state.
Just don’t eat the crab dip.
Mental illness is horror/media :
A great article on ghost tours in old asylums that touches on some great stuff:
Featured image source: http://www.impawards.com/intl/canada/2011/posters/grave_encounters.jpg
Troy, a la Community: https://goo.gl/images/QFrC1Y