By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 25, 2011 at 3:1AM
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