In 2011, Found Footage horror films were arguably at their peak. And I say peak lightly, the sub-genre has always had an uphill battle. Films such as REC and Cloverfield had made their impact, The Last Exorcism was divisive, and through 3 Paranormal Activity films, the fatigue was beginning to set in. Good found footage films were starting to slip through the cracks and those cracks are where cult classics are born. So let’s dive into one of found footage’s misunderstood masterpiece: it’s time to have…some Grave Encounters.
Grave Encounters is a Canadian found footage horror film written and directed by Colin Minihan & Stuart Ortiz, known as The Vicious Brothers. The movie is presented as footage of the fictional paranormal investigation series, presented by the producer. The movie is comprised of material cut together from the final episode of the fictitious series. This particular ‘episode’ of Grave Encounters follows host Lance Preston, an occult specialist, a fake psychic, and a tech crew as they explore an abandoned psychiatric ward. The crew is skeptical after many failed episodes, so as you can imagine when they visit the sinister Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital: all Hell breaks loose.
The film mixes together multiple sub-genres, from parody to classic haunted house horror, providing a steady stream of laughs and scares from start to finish. So why wasn’t this movie a bigger hit? At the time of release, the trailer amassed over 30 million views, which was huge for 2011. Grave Encounters was received decently by critics and though it only pulled in $5.4 million at the box office, the film was still a financial success due to the shoestring budget.
It all starts with the setup. People have made fun of the authenticity of the paranormal investigation shows since the dawn of time, and this film knows it. But more importantly, the characters know it. Within the movie, Lance & company know they are frauds, and their skepticism is at its highest. As they explore the hospital, they attempt to fabricate any paranormal activity that they can. The parody style grounds the characters. We’ve all seen fake hosts and psychics like Lance Preston and Houston Grey, and though we don’t learn much about them beyond the series, we at least relate to them.
“The found footage isn’t a gimmick or crutch to hide behind, it serves the story of the film.”
The fake T.V show premise also enforces the reasoning for the found footage style in the first place. A common flaw in the sub-genre is the film not able to justify the camera, resulting in you asking “why are they recording all of this?” Also, with it being a fake T.V show instead of just some rattled home videos, the presentation of the movie is a bit cleaner and easier to consume without getting vertigo. Most importantly, the found footage isn’t a gimmick or crutch to hide behind, it serves the story of the film.
While the setup of the film is important, the most interesting part of Grave Encounters is its tone and pacing. I’m not going to try and sell you on this movie as a technical marvel, but you know what it is? It’s a fun horror movie. 90% of found footage movies are so serious and dark. Striking a balance between parodying a paranormal television show and delivering a thrilling haunted house romp is no easy task. Grave Encounters deserves more credit for delivering the goods. While this film definitely gets dark, it has a fair share of laughs throughout. Even when the real spooky events start to unfold, they’re still cracking jokes and bantering. Some might say these scenes are cheesy and turn them off, but it was definitely intentional.
Once the spooky shenanigans start, its full steam ahead until the end. Scares get increasingly more disturbing before turning into a full time-looping, psychological nightmare. Grave Encounters does an amazing job keeping us in the know, telegraphing when scares are going to happen with sounds, apparitions, and the video timestamps going haywire. This movie isn’t so much trying to scare the audience, more trying to entertain us at the expense of the characters. One common complaint of this movie is that the characters are too unlikable, but that might be the point. They are these paranormal frauds almost being punished as (*spoiler*) none of the crew makes it out alive.
“It doesn’t hurt to have a self-aware tone, it brings the audience in on the fun.”
I sometimes like it when there’s nobody to cheer for. It just means on rewatch you can just sit back and enjoy the mayhem without getting emotionally involved. This also makes Grave Encounters a fantastic group watch with friends or a worthy addition to a ‘Netflix & Chill’ night (I watched this movie a ridiculous amount of times in college). It doesn’t hurt to have a self-aware tone, it brings the audience in on the fun.
So why aren’t we talking about this movie more? I think it boils down to bad timing and misinterpretations. Between 2010-2014, there were so many found footage films getting thrown at us, it was impossible to see them all. Plus, the negative reviews for the film called it “derivative”, “repetitive” or generally unauthentic. These comments mainly came from reviews that roped Grave Encounters in with the rest of the genre at the time, leading people to skip it expecting the same demonic possession formula they all follow. Which is completely unfair. The Vicious Brothers were genuinely trying to make something different and fun, which they handled with an unbridled sense of self-awareness.
Imagine if Grave Encounters came out before or after the big found footage boom. If it came out before Paranormal Activity, it could have possibly gone on to become a pillar of found footage horror. Or, if it came out afterward, it would have been held up as a refreshing spin on a tired sub-genre. Either way, timing is everything.
However, following its limited release success, the film developed a cult following, even spawning a sequel; Grave Encounters 2. The passionate fanbase even clamored for a third installment, which would be a prequel and indeed has a script, but only time will tell if it ever comes to fruition.
Grave Encounters has had a lot of opinions surrounding it over the years; good, bad, and everything in-between. Whether you’re a proud cult fan of the film or have never seen it, it’s safe to say Grave Encounters can be best described as misunderstood. If you avoided this film due to the comparison to other found footage movies, I implore you to round up the squad and give Grave Encounters a watch.
We’re celebrating found footage horror all month here at NOFS, so stick around to enjoy all the sub-genre has to offer! Any other forgotten movies in the genre waiting for their footage to be found? Let’s talk about it on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit!