I avoid being too specific regarding particular plot points, but there are minor spoilers in this review. I think I’m the last horror fan who hasn’t seen this film anyway so it shouldn’t matter!
Found footage divides opinion in the horror community; some see it is a lazy, cheap way to avoid making a “proper” horror movie or rue the seasickness-inducing camerawork where others love the realism and involvement it can create. It has certainly been abused repeatedly, resulting in what seems an acceptable standard where nothing happens for 45 minutes before a few unexplained events occur and action scenes consist of a camera being thrown around. However, I think it’s unfair to tarnish the entire genre, because among the awful entries such as the aptly-named Atrocious, the 76 Paranormal Activity movies, and those nondescript ones that always appear in Tesco’s Bargain Chart with the same blue & silver filter on their box art, there have been some excellent uses of the style in the V/H/S shorts, and some genuinely brilliant found footage movies such as [REC] 1 & 2, and Cloverfield. The Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters is one of these found footage films, but I never got round to watching it despite hearing from everywhere that it was one of the top ones of the genre. I approached cautiously, wondering whether this would indeed find itself on the esteemed list of “found footage films that aren’t terrible”.
In the movie, Grave Encounters is a new ghost-hunting TV series, filming it’s sixth (and apparently final) episode in an abandoned asylum. Opening with a delightfully ham-fisted sequence of a TV Producer being interviewed about the footage we’re due to see, telling us straight to the camera that “THIS IS NOT A MOVIE” and so on, it’s hard to tell whether it’s intentionally funny or a misguided attempt at tension building. Soon into the main part of the movie however, it’s clear there’s a sharp sense of humor running underneath. Subtle moments between the crew and various background actions are not just comic relief though, they lend a real authenticity to the film & it’s characters. The cast & directors achieve a rare feat here – not just for found footage, but for horror in general – every character is believable and likeable. It’s true here that very little actually happens for the first 30 minutes or so but it’s still compelling to watch for the above reasons.
With so much to be said about the funny side of the film, it may sound like it forgets it’s supposed to be a horror. But that is far from true: a real sense of dread builds up throughout this first part. It’s hard to say exactly where it comes from, but it’s ever present that something isn’t right and I found myself nervously eyeing up every door and window whenever the film cut to the static night-vision cameras positioned around the asylum. It goes without saying that their plan to film an episode & get out does eventually go terribly wrong, and it’s here that the asylum takes on a brilliantly claustrophobic, labyrinthine quality, the cast evoke a tangible feeling of despair & desperation, and some incredibly effective scares with pretty horrific imagery keep the tension at breaking point, even managing to distract from a few brief glimpses of rather ropey CGI. It’s all building beautifully towards a final reveal. A final reveal that never arrives.
The last act of this film is where it let me down unfortunately. Some big questions are opened up & no explanations are offered, with the final sequences dissipating much of the tension and a final scare that isn’t all that scary. I’m all for a film letting us decide for ourselves if it doesn’t want to spoon-feed the audience, but this time it didn’t work for me. The found-footage format doesn’t allow the explanation to be some sort of madness on the character’s part as I feel is hinted towards because the whole point is we are seeing these things happening. It leaves the only real conclusion for every loose end to be “ghosts did it” which isn’t quite enough for me. It’s clear with hindsight that this film isn’t meant to be looked at so literally, there’s a lot to be said about how the events & fates of certain characters relate to the historical use of the building in quite a powerful allegorical manner. At the very least, this is two thirds of a fantastic movie; everything is done right until the closing 10 minutes, and an otherwise slightly disappointing last act still leaves us to think about some important issues. It either addresses or steers clear of many of the issues made about found footage movies, so it remains a great example of how the genre can be done well. And you won’t even get motion sickness from watching it.