I’m baaaaack! I know I promised these reviews over a month ago on Twitter, and I am sorry it has taken me this long to post. Life is significantly busier than it has been for a while, so blogging and shamelessly self-promoting had to take a back seat to some other more pressing tasks. But it’s all good, because here it is, y’all, as promised. Let’s rave and then rant about the Grave Encounters franchise.
Just in case you didn’t know, I will tell you that this movie was a viral marketing sensation. The trailer was viewed over 20 million times on Youtube, with the top comments still reading, “……” Now, I would venture to speculate that about ninety nine point nine nine percent of the viewing audience knows that this is not real. In fact, a quick search for “Collingswood Mental Hospital” proves that there is no such place, which I already know, because I am from Maryland, where Collingswood supposedly is. But that’s no fun, to think about it realistically. Except it is. It makes for a totally acceptable viewing experience, and I was happy to see that though Grave Encounters is a “found footage” horror, and though it begins with a policeman proclaiming that none of the film has been doctored in any way, there are few other indicators that we are really supposed to be taking this seriously. In short, the filmmakers aren’t laying it on too thick that it becomes annoying. (Paranormal Activity, here’s looking at you.)
The story is pretty standard: A documentary crew for a Ghost Hunters-type show arrives at the aforementioned Collingswood Mental Institution to shoot an episode. They have the frontman, Lance Preston (Ben Wilkinson), who stares intensely into the camera and talks in a semi-deep but fully ominous tone about the horrors that lurk within the building, and about the building’s horrifying past. They have a psychic who walks through the building proclaiming that he feels the terrible energy of all the tortured souls who died within its walls. They have the multiple camera-people. They have the moment where the camera-people, the host, and the psychic stare into the camera intensely and proclaim, “This… is Grave Encounters.” They pay off a groundskeeper to say he saw a ghost outside, and that part made me laugh pretty hard.
But it’s all bullshit. The psychic is a fake, and after his takes are over, he, Lance, and the crew laugh about how silly it is. Lance knows that he’s faking it. They all know it’s fake. It’s good TV, and that is all. The satire on these types of shows is real here, and it is hilarious. In fact, it is this satire that was part of what made this movie stand out to me as something cool and different.
Though the show is staged, the haunting of the institution turns out to be real. Are you shocked?
After being locked inside for the night, Lance and the crew discover that the stories are true; the place is infested with ghoulies and ghosties with contorted faces that were scarier the first time I saw them in The Ring, but it’s not those ghoulies and ghosties that are scary, anyway. Yeah, they provide the jump scares, which are the bread and butter of horror directors and writers, but what is scarier than that is the claustrophobia of the institution itself. As Lance and the crew try to escape, they discover that the institution has become a funhouse of sorts, with doors marked Exit opening onto long corridors, with the roof entry gone, and with time outside of the institution having no effect within its walls; one of the scariest parts comes when Lance discovers, after telling his crew that it would be light in a few hours and the whole ordeal would be over, that his watch is still ticking, and it is long past dawn outside the walls of Collingswood, but it is still the middle of the night inside. That is scary stuff, because it takes away the hope that the characters and that we, the audience, feel, when we think that soon the light of dawn will save the day. No matter what these people do, they cannot escape. The other scary parts include a certain character having a message cut into her back, and when each character begins to lose his or her minds, which reveals that regardless of one’s mental state going in, Collingswood will make you someone else.
I really dug this movie. If it had never showed the silly looking ghosts, I would have been just as creeped out, if not more so. The jump out scares were fun as always, but the scariest parts were watching these characters lose their minds, and watching as life outside the walls continues on without them. Could it be a metaphor?! Probably. But whatever. It was a good metaphor, and a good movie.
Then I watched Grave Encounters 2.
Ten minutes in, I was livid. Instead of making a sequel that expands upon the creepy claustrophobia and unique twists of the original, Grave Encounters 2 adds torture porn (which is fake, mind you, but still, if I wanted to watch torture porn, I would watch Saw or Hostel), random girl-on-girl make-outs, balls on people’s foreheads, drunken college parties, etc. etc. etc. It tries to continue the “satirical” elements of the first film by having Alex (Richard Harmon) setting out to make a convincing horror film. Now, in the first, Lance was trying to make a convincing horror television show, but still… You see the parallels. What annoys me most, though, about this movie is the whole, “Audience! You are watching a real life found film! Grave Encounters was real! And now, so is this!” Now, I know they don’t think that we actually believe this (and God, I hope people don’t actually believe it), but wasn’t that gimmick retired in the late 90’s with The Blair Witch Project? I am so over these movies pretending to be real. It was scary in the 90’s, when The Blair Witch Project was the only example of this marketing ploy. But now, it is tired. It is silly. It is boring.
This movie begins, and a half hour in, Alex and his friends have not even gone to the institution yet. I get that Alex was supposed to be investigating the first movie, so of course he would interview the mother of the first film’s main character, and of course he would try to track down the producer. Again, my issues with this come back to this movie trying to be scary by pretending that the first film is real. This is not scary. Again, this is ridiculous. This is tired. There is a lot of meta-narrative going on in these scenes, or some Inception-y film within a film shit, like the producer saying, “And they want to make a sequel! Grave Encounters 2!” and blimey, we’re watching Grave Encounters 2! How clever!
Do you want to know how many times Alex looks into the camera and mutters, in a trembling voice, “It’s all real. Grave Encounters is real?” So many times that I lost count. As if they couldn’t just leave it off with this nonsense in the beginning, they had to keep. freaking. repeating it. This is both an effort to make the movie scarier, and an effort to be clever. Another instance of this movie trying to be clever that jumps immediately to mind is when an Asian character proclaiming that “the ethnics always die first,” which, gee, could that be foreshadowing? Of course it is. Could it be an effort to satirize the horror movie genre, which would be an effort to make this film smarter than a shoddily thrown together low-budget sequel that did not need to be made? Of course it is.
So summing it up is actually very simple this time around: Grave Encounters = Good, clever, a little deeper than the surface level of most “found footage” B-movies. Grave Encounters 2 = SHIT. Pure, plain, and simple shit.
Were you expecting me to sugar-coat it? No. I won’t. SHIT.
Also, fun fact from a proud native Marylander: Though we do not have a Collingswood Hospital, we do have Rosewood, formerly known as the Asylum and Training School for the Feeble-Minded. Opened in 1888, it was where relatives dumped their “mentally incompetent” family members. It was abandoned in 2009, and the through-road was closed to civilian vehicles, but it is still used as a training facility for policemen. Funnest fact of all? The university I attended is built right behind Rosewood–literally, you can see the two watch-towers from the grounds, and many students believe that the spirits of Rosewood haunt the buildings closest to the property. The entire time I attended school there, I wanted to sneak onto the grounds and investigate the 10+ abandoned buildings, but alas, we were told trespassers would spend the night in jail, and though my dad finds much of my debauchery funny, I do not think he would find that phone call funny.
Here’s a pic of three of the buildings:
Here’s an article detailing the patient abuse scandals that eventually led to the Center being shut down permanently:
See, now that’s scary and it’s a true story. Someone make a movie about it.
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I’m T. Rudacille, author of the Eternity series. The first book in the series, The Shattered Genesis and the second book, The Bargaining Path, are available for FREE in the Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords stores, and The Shattered Genesis is also available in paperback on Amazon!