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by Eric Kohn
April 25, 2011 3:01 AM
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TRIBECA REVIEW | "Grave Encounters" is a Weak "Blair Witch" Imitation

The Vicious Brothers' "Grave Encounters." Tribeca Film

Memo to horror directors: If it's been done before, try not to do it. That's the main takeaway from "Grave Encounters," a highly derivative haunted house effort from first-time filmmakers the Vicious Brothers.

"Grave Encounters" recycles a now-familiar formula: Take a "real" situation (here, a ghost-hunting reality show) and blend naturalistic performances with apparently supernatural forces; add low production values that suggest authenticity. It was first made popular by "The Blair Witch Project" 12 years ago and reinvigorated by "Paranormal Activity" in 2008, but "Grave Encounters" fails to realize that potential.

The title refers to a cheap TV series hosted by lifelong ghost lover Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), whose fabricated claims of discovering otherworldly beings have kept the network happy. "Then," says a producer in the opening segment, "episode six happened."

The "uncut" footage rolls, as a cheery Lance and his team of snarky young techies wander through the old mental hospital that will eventually turn against them. Confidently addressing the camera about the invisible creepy things potentially surrounding him, Lance drops facade between takes, noting that they can always fake it if nothing happens.

Obviously, something does. From early on, when it's noted that a late doctor from the clinic had the last name "Friedkin" -- in an obvious nod to the director of "The Exorcist" -- "Grave Encounters" announces itself as a seriously referential affair. It's just as predictable.

The scare tactics drip along with casual inevitability. A static camera observes a quiet room in which a wheelchair suddenly moves by itself. Some ungodly apparition briefly manifests in the corner. A hysterical cameraman blurts out, "What the fuck was that?" after nearly every unidentified thud, virtually killing the suspense. These moments are so mechanical that the movie might as well give viewers a choice for which grave encounter they want next.

Both "Blair Witch" and "Paranormal Activity" (or even the 1980 Italian horror film "Cannibal Holocaust") invested in character and story. When bad things happened, they sustained the illusion that real lives were at risk. In "Grave Encounters," the cast's doom is obvious early on and then the movie simply takes them there.

That lack of innovation is particularly frustrating because the Vicious Brothers have a few promising gimmicks built into the premise that build on the conventional haunted-house scenario. Once it becomes clear that the team can't escape, they wander endlessly through an illogically shaped labyrinth as terrible unseen forces close in. The eternal maze has frightening potential.

But "Grave Encounters" lacks the imagination that could have injected it with more intrigue. "We just wanna make sure we get some good scares," someone says, echoing the filmmakers' vain efforts.

Now that it's been proven how handheld, documentary-style footage can utilize genre ingredients, maybe there should be a moratorium on such projects. Then again, the great Norwegian sci-fi comedy "The Troll Hunter" (also playing at Tribeca) does it right, eventually erupting into a complex production that uses the shaky-cam technique as a jumping-off point for more advanced cinematic trickery. Overall, however, the mockumentary approach to horror and suspense has been done to death; very few directors are capable of resurrecting it.

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having already secured distribution through Tribeca Films, the movie hits theaters and VOD in August. It won't make a ton of money, but the genre hook may yield a solid VOD performance before it permanently drops out of view.

criticWIRE grade: C

TAGS: Reviews
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19 Comments

  • jon | October 22, 2013 10:12 PMReply

    grave encounters is lame. the lack of investment in characters hits the nail right on the head, and the whole movie seems tongue in cheek (ok, i didn't bother finishing it). scares were telegraphed, story was cut'n'pasted together like a music video, and there was nothing visceral at all. on the other hand, session 9 is a great movie about an abandoned asylum, and i'll take any mouthpiece i can get to promote it!

  • Lobotomy Jack | September 29, 2012 4:47 AMReply

    Sorry but the blaire witch project is shit and didnt scare me for a second.

    Grave Encounters is a great fun film and there was absoluetly nothing wrong with the
    acting!

    everyone did great in the movie and the hospital was a great character too--it actually is
    haunted!

    would love to lock up the sour idiots who didnt enjoy this movie in there and see how
    smart they are then!

  • JOHN IS HERE | October 26, 2013 2:29 AM

    f##### idiot, blair witch and grave encouters have identical histories with some few ridiculous changes.
    If blair is lame then grave is lame because the history is the same.
    Just a complete retard like you can't see that, watch both movies again before try to act like a smartass

  • JaDE | December 22, 2011 11:47 PMReply

    Im going to add to my last sentence that whoever wrote this article has no idea what they're talking about but obviously thinks that they do. Also, this movie made me spaz out so hard that I punched myself in the balls not once, but twice. So in my balls' opinion, this movie was scary as hell.

  • JaDE | December 22, 2011 11:37 PMReply

    Whoever wrote this is a moron. The Blair Witch Project was pure shit first of all, and Paranormal Activity is just alright. This film scared the living shit out of me! I put this film on par with [REC] and [REC]2 and I say that whoever wrote this article has nnoOOoOoOooo idea what they're talking about.

  • Matthew | November 22, 2011 9:22 AMReply

    I'm sorry but i think you fail to see that they were trying to pull away from the obvious "Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity" flaws. They wanted it to be realistic; in real life you dont have story lines or "invested characters" you have regular everyday people here that try to be genuine. Of course when you hear something you ask what is that, whether you say it aloud or in your head. To say that it pulls away from the suspense may be true for you but it makes it more authentic, he wants to know "What the fuck was that?"
    Out of "Blair Witch Project", "Paranormal Activity", and "Grave Encounters" this is an all around better film. The only thing this film lacks is better cinematography. For example when they are in the closet like room and the hospital bands are placed on their wrist it is more than obvious that the currents in the room are different. I know this is not a big concern for many people but i think when you are trying to sell it off as real little details like this matter.

  • JPX | November 21, 2011 9:25 AMReply

    I'm tired of people giving The Blair Witch Project so many accolades. I would put it at the bottom of the list for found footage films even if it was one of the first. It's a bore-fest where nothing of note happens. Grave Encounters might be "derivative" but it's a fun way to spend 90 minutes with some pretty jarring scares. My favorite of this genre would have to be either The Tunnel or Lake Mungo.

  • Robert | September 12, 2011 3:43 AMReply

    I liked it. For FRESHMEN film makers this is good. Some nice twists here and there and just enough clique to have some fun with. Some of the acting within the acting was laughable yes and I sincerly believe that the female's death/dissapperence was handled in a halfassed way. Would I have changed a few things after seeing this, yes. Is it worth a watch with friends, hell yes. I find myself drifting more towards independent film making to get away from all the hollywood "Snuff Films."

  • Chris | August 28, 2011 10:07 AMReply

    If you thought the hospital area of Silent Hill was creepy, watch this movie. I don't really care if "it's been done before", it's extremely hard to come up with an idea that hasn't "been done before". And just because of the way it was shot and had the "reality" aspect does NOT automatically make it a Blair Witch clone. Believe it or not some of us don't think Blair Witch did "it" best anyways, there are plenty of other movies like it that I enjoyed more.

    I was pleasantly surprised at the film. I liked the direction it took and the scares didn't feel cheap. Sure, the acting wasn't the best, but I think they pulled it off. Haunted hospitals/asylums are one of the creepiest settings in my opinion, and I thought they captured the atmosphere quite impressively. I hope this movie makes it to a big audience, I enjoy these movies a hell of a lot more than the too popular torture-porn. Movies that let your imagination scare you, that those with active imaginations will enjoy.

  • Steven | August 25, 2011 4:53 AMReply

    Calling this a Blair Witch rip off is insulting as the Blair Witch sucked. This was enjoyable enough and actual wasn't as formulaic as I expected and there were some actual twists. While the ending was slightly predictable they did take it a different route and it wasn't completely expected. I would have liked a little more exposition from those who found the footage as to what they actually found and what the state of the hospital was.

  • toney | August 22, 2011 1:51 AMReply

    i saw this movie saturday afternoon on my laptop and it made me say WTF a couple of times. i would imagine in a theater atmosphere it would be much better. i would give it a B-.
    i enjoyed it.

  • DJ | August 21, 2011 11:15 AMReply

    but they know thousands of moronic teens will still go thinking they will get scared and not care how well a movie is made { or not made - in this case } or with the bad acting...

    look at Twilight for example. :)

  • Greg | August 21, 2011 5:29 AMReply

    Nah, the movie was pretty much garbage. Relies heavily on gimmicks and startles. Boring characters. Lackluster ending. It was pretty much an hour and a half of crap you've seen a million times before.

  • Lobotomy Jack | September 29, 2012 4:44 AM

    Your pretty much garbage who relies on stupid comments to make yourself feel important
    when in reality your just a jackass.

    you PROBABLY think paranormal crap activity is better right?

    well that movie sucked balls and so do you!

  • Mauser | July 5, 2011 4:19 AMReply

    Memo to movie critics: if a seemingly glib remark has been repeated ad nauseam, try not to do it as well. Especially if you intend to contradict said generic euphemism a few scant sentences after (like mentioning Paranormal Activity not only aped BWP (which technically aped films like Cannibal Holocaust) but did so successfully. Then again, given that everything has been done before, to a certain extent, it's really not great advice in the first place anyway XD

    "The scare tactics drip along with casual inevitability. A static camera observes a quiet room in which a wheelchair suddenly moves by itself. Some ungodly apparition briefly manifests in the corner. A hysterical cameraman blurts out, “What the fuck was that?” after nearly every unidentified thud, virtually killing the suspense. These moments are so mechanical that the movie might as well give viewers a choice for which grave encounter they want next. "

    Sounds like a very smart parody of the Ghost Hunters "genre", actually. Implies a heavy amount of savvyness.

    "When bad things happened, they sustained the illusion that real lives were at risk. In “Grave Encounters,” the cast’s doom is obvious early on and then the movie simply takes them there. "

    Not really, both BWP and CH establish that they recovered the film but the participants were never found. Hell, that was the cornerstone of their promotional campaigns, even paying actors to disappear in the case of CH.

    At any rate, after skimming this review I rather imagine the movie would be worth a watch.

  • jessica | June 29, 2011 7:17 AMReply

    when does it come to fresno,ca

  • Nadia | May 30, 2011 6:21 AMReply

    hope this will make me jump out of the theater in Brunei. will it be there in Asia?

  • Pete | May 8, 2011 9:05 AMReply

    Ive seen the trailer and think it looks a really great film.Like the Ghost adventures goes wrong style.Hoping it gets uk release soon.

  • Anonymous | May 2, 2011 11:10 AMReply

    wamp wamp