AUGUST 12, 2011
A frequently requested “non canon” review round these parts is Session 9, and eventually it’s going to get to the point where it qualifies for one of those “been so long I can’t remember anything about it” regular reviews. But I remember enough to know that the makers of Grave Encounters must have seen it, as not only does it involve an abandoned asylum infamous for its radical treatments (i.e. lobotomies), but at one point they seem to even directly reference the film, as a blue collar supporting character talks about a team that was hired to renovate the place, which is exactly what the main characters in Brad Anderson’s film were doing.
And while it’s nice that they have seen the (underrated/underseen) film, it unfortunately just reminded me of its existence and also that it was a lot better. Encounters isn’t a bad film, but it leaves no impact; I just finished watching and I can already sense it slipping from my memory (I’m already blanking on a few of the character names). Much like Paranormal Activity 2, it functions as a perfectly acceptable “funhouse ride” of a movie, offering a few jolts and creepy images, but it lacks that unnerving quality that keeps me coming back to movies like Blair Witch or the original Paranormal.
Ironically, the thing that kind of kept it “at bay” was also one of its more original ideas – the fact that they are not only trapped inside the building (the caretaker has locked them in while they do their investigation – more on that later), but also “lost”, in that the main door that should open to the outside world now leads to another hallway, and the very concept of time seems to be abandoned; it’s supposedly 8 am but it’s still dark outside, their food has become rotten even though they haven’t even been there for 24 hours, etc. Unfortunately, this potentially exciting/scary idea is not only never explained (the film really could use a “real world” epilogue, i.e. the caretaker returning in the morning), but it also kept me from getting caught up in the events of the film, because I had no real world experience with such a thing.
In Blair Witch there’s the whole “it’s the same log!” bit that suggests (but does not PROVE) that they have somehow been going in circles. It’s left up to your interpretation – maybe they’re just shitty at walking in a straight line. Here, there’s no such gray area – we see the door that they entered at the beginning of the movie is now another hallway, and later they find that a staircase to the roof simply leads nowhere. This makes it harder to buy into the reality of their situation; it actually worked better when they were simply having trouble telling hallways apart. To me, the further a found footage movie drifts from known reality, the harder it is to buy it as a “real” thing. Even a ridiculous idea like a giant monster in Cloverfield worked better, because everything else was grounded in reality - but here, there’s nothing to latch on to.
I was also baffled why the caretaker actually locked them in, as we learn early on that the folks on the ghost hunting team are a bunch of frauds, faking back-stories and even personas (the psychic guy who’s really just some hammy asshole). Seems to me that they wouldn’t have actually gone to the trouble of really being locked in if they weren’t legitimate hunters (and this being their 6th episode, they’re obviously used to nothing happening). Indeed, my favorite thing about the movie was not only how well they recreated the tone of these terrible ghost hunting shows that are all over basic cable (I’m not a big fan, if you haven’t been able to tell yet), but also that they make such a mockery out of them. Early on, the douchey host pays a groundskeeper to make up a ghost sighting - a funny sequence that is probably the most realistic scene in the film. But it’s a missed opportunity to draw out the tension a bit; we know that they’ve probably staged some events in their other episodes, however they quickly come to the conclusion that the things they are seeing are real. There’s a quick “are you guys screwing with me?” conversation, but it’s only about a half hour into the movie that the shit hits the fan and they all know they’re in real danger, which means that the rest of the movie is just a bunch of running around and yelling. I think having one skeptical character could have helped keep up the tension a bit, as well as make it more terrifying when even they couldn’t deny that they were truly fucked.
But again, it’s a fun enough spook-fest, with surprisingly good CGI ghouls that work much better than that awful thing at the end of the new/worst Paranormal Activity ending adding a bit of flavor. I also was impressed by the acting across the board; Sean Rogerson in particular is terrific as the arrogant host, perfectly nailing the persona of guys like the schmuck on Paranormal State (one of the most insufferable people I’ve ever had to listen to in my life, at a Q&A a few years back where State was previewing during a film festival). Ashleigh Gryzko and Merwin Mondesir are also believable as the most freaked out of the group, though their primarily “oh shit” based dialogue can get a bit grating after a while. Nothing can kill one of these movies easier than bad acting (or familiar actors), so if nothing else the filmmakers (dubbed The Vicious Brothers for some reason, as if living in a world where we already had The Butcher Brothers wasn’t obnoxious enough) have excelled in this area.
The film will be released via VOD and that sort of nonsense on August 26th, as well as (I think just) two theatrical bookings, one in NY and the other in LA. I think it would be a fun movie to watch with a crowd, since it doesn't take long to start with the jump scares and such, so if you dig these sort of movies I'd definitely recommend seeing it that way. If that's not an option, it will make a great rental, since it's not the sort of thing you'd want to watch over and over anyway. It's well made, but since it doesn't offer up anything new (well, this is the only one in which someone eats a rat, I think) or a really strong hook, I think it will just get lost in the shuffle, with so many other (better/meatier) found footage movies as of late. But I think the duo has some promise; hopefully their next project finds them in less well-traveled territory.
What say you?