November 8, 2011
Darkness and hallways. Why does it always have to be darkness and hallways? There are two things, even at his advanced age, that are guaranteed to send chills down The Mike's spine when combined. And darkness and hallways are certainly those two things.
I can handle darkness. Darkness is easy when you know where you are. In the comfort of my own home, I can maneuver most of my surroundings in total darkness. One time I woke up in the middle of the night, randomly thought it would be a good idea to watch Godzilla 2000 some time, got up, found the DVD on the shelf, and went back to bed - all without turning the lights on. I was really proud of myself in the morning, until I realized that I had thought watching Godzilla 2000 was a good idea.
Hallways, similarly, aren't a bad thing. Sure, I'd rather be frolicking about a field if I have to move from one place to another, but I still find hallways to be an acceptable structure for the passage of beings and items. But when you put me in a relatively small hallway - even a hallway I'm quite familiar with - and suddenly leave me without light, I'm gonna be freakin' out a little.
Grave Encounters - a relatively slick indie horror film that's a sly mixture of found footage and reality television - is ALL about darkness and hallways. It's got one of the smallest darkness-to-hallway ratios I've ever encountered, which makes it one of the creepier films I've encountered in a long time.
The premise of the film is a swell one, with a crew of real-life skeptics who play on-screen "ghost hunters" taking their television program - titled Grave Encounters, naturally - into an abandoned mental hospital that is alleged to be very haunted. The night starts out with the group following a pretty standard script that should make anyone who's watched actual reality haunting shows smile, led by the fearless host Lance Preston. Lance is kind of a tool, but we need that edge from him to sell what the movie has to offer. I thought the character (played by Sean Rogerson) did a great job of anchoring the film.
As Lance and his crew move through the evening, strange things start to happen in the dark and hallway filled building. It takes a while for these strange things to really develop - the film probably spends a good 40 minutes teasing that something terrible is around the corner - and I found the set-up very rewarding. One sequence has a character snapping photos down dark hallways, and cutting to the photos that were taken (which breaks the found footage script's illusion of reality, but whatever), each of which seems to show an unexplainable spectre. Again, this is just a tease of things to come - but it also proves that these hallways have some things we should be afraid of within them.
It's around the midpoint of the film - about the point where one cameraman has an encounter in a dark stairwell at the end of a dark hallway - that the film really puts on its paranormal shoes and starts dancing. And it dances well. We've seen a lot of its moves before, and some of the special effects are a little obvious for my taste, but there are also plenty of fresh chills to be found in these dark corridors. The film takes an especially interesting twist when it starts to play with the characters' perceptions of time and location, which serves as the moment when we really start to understand that these folks are up against something far bigger than they ever imagined.
But most of the second half of the film is focused on good ol' horror movie tricks, and the filmmakers use them well. One of my favorite moments reminded me of a Silent Hill-type video game, as the host wanders off with his flashlight, finds a strange clue, and is immediately surprised by something much worse before running for his life. Again, I don't know if I'd say that Grave Encounters breaks much new ground with its horror tricks. But I think it presents enough of the right tricks to make it a rewarding viewing.
It's easy to see why Grave Encounters didn't make a bigger splash in the mainstream horror scene with all the other found footage flicks - from Paranormal Activity to The Last Exorcism to Apollo 18 - that have been picked up for major releases in recent years. It's a little raw and a little repetitive. But I was still impressed by much of what The Vicious Brothers and their cast and crew achieved here, because Grave Encounters at least had more than a little creeped out for most of its duration. They hold the key to my goosebumps - which resides in darkness and hallways, naturally - and they used it well.
If you're looking for a straight forward bit of horror that might give you the same kind of shivers, I definitely recommend Grave Encounters.