Grave Encounters (2011)

Here's random movie that no one remembers from the gutter of 2000s/2010s horror movies. I decided to rewatch this recently, having not seen it in about eight years, and I've got to say that it still holds up surprisingly well. I have no idea how or why it does, because on the surface, it seems like a movie that is guaranteed to be bottom of the barrel trash: A found footage movie that takes place in an asylum, made during the height of found footage trash. Yet somehow, this is a bit of an underrated gem in my opinion. Though I'm suddenly self-aware of the quality of films that I've written about on this blog so far and elsewhere and am starting to become concerned that I am not in fact enough of a patrician with kino film tastes. I'm sorry, but I'm going to over-analyze a found footage movie with spooky ghosts.

Technically I watched this movie before my review of Bottom of the World, but I only just now decided to finish writing a review of it. Much like the characters in Grave Encounters, I am myself trapped in something of an insane asylum, where time and space have become distorted and concepts of linear time are no longer relevant to me. Unlike Bottom of the World, which has a premise that I think could be quite interesting, Grave Encounters is just the most "this is a spooky horror movie" premise ever. I will say though that as an abandoned buildings enjoyer, I'll probably be willing to hear out a movie if it makes good use of them. Movies that take place in Detroit in particular have done that quite well over the years, and while this movie isn't as good as It Follows or Barbarian, the abandoned building-ness of the setting is a core part of the text of the film.

One thing that sets this movie apart a bit however is that it isn't just a found footage movie about some assholes in an abandoned insane asylum, but rather the hook is that a fictional Ghost Adventures esque TV show was filming an episode in the asylum and the found footage you're watching is what they ended up filming for this never-aired TV show episode. This is a bit like the plot of Noroi, a movie I'm a big fan of, and in my review for Noroi I compared its treatment of the paranormal and paranormal media with American paranormal media. With American paranormal media, you always kind of know that what you're seeing onscreen is fake, but that's part of its appeal, the jouissance of spooky ghost hunting TV shows even, that you know that what you're watching is fake and are along for the ride but you're also invested in the conceit that it could maybe be real and that in this particular episode Zach Baggans finally has the most compelling evidence yet(!) of the existence of the paranormal.

Thinking about J-Horror, it reminds me a bit of Pulse (aka Kairo), which is another one of my favorite films ever and that has a similar theme of using ghosts as a way to explore the state of our technological late capitalist civilization where all things have essentially been reduced to their signs, where the highest values have been devalued. Unlike Pulse, the phenomenon of ghost hunting TV shows is a more perverse and decadent nihilism, where the point of these shows is to keep the viewer in a state of intensity, of both wanting to believe in something while also knowing that the media they're watching doesn't even believe in what it's telling the audience to believe. This is why Chills is the best of the best when it comes to this grift, surpassing even Zach Baggans, because no matter how stupid and implausible the spooky videos are that he's showing, he always maintains the same deadpan delivery. You never really know whether Chills is himself in on the joke, or if he believes some of what he shows. The viewer is instead brought into a ghostly reflection of the real world through this online culture of amateur ghost hunting and found footage hoax videos, where you're never really quite sure what's real but suspect that almost everything is fake.

I could really write a whole post on Chills, but in any event, Grave Encounters is kind of a neat movie to compare with Noroi for being the perfect American counterpart to it. The whole conceit of it being found footage from a ghost hunting show is done quite well and functions on this meta level of suspending your disbelief since if you've ever seen a ghost hunting show you already are going into this knowing that the people making the show are going to characters who probably are cynical con artists and maybe have an inkling of a belief in the possibility that ghosts exists. Unlike with other found footage movies where the idea is that it's always something that could happen to anyone, and the events are totally real and happened to normal people, the framing of it being a ghost hunting show means that the audience can view the movie in the same way. To me this makes it one of the better found footage movies.

However, the movie also has its problems, one of the biggest ones being that since it is an American horror movie that came out in 2011, it's not able to exercise the necessary restraint to stick the landing. The thing that makes ghosts scary is that they are a rupture in time and space – people and events from the past that are recurring in the present, like a looping record or a sample in a piece of music. The best ghost media understands this and takes it a step further by having the ghosts not only be things recurring from the past, but where the past and future fold in on themselves in a singularity that is definitively a rupture in space and time. Don't Look Now, Lake Mungo (possibly the best found footage movie of all time) and The Haunting of Hill House all do this to incredible effect, and another thing that makes ghosts scary that Lake Mungo (and Haunting of Hill House, to a lesser extent) does very well is having these ruptures in space and time only be visible through a piece of media. Media, after all, is itself a kind of haunting1 – it is also a recurrence of something from the past that keeps recurring, and in some cases it is also a recurrence of something from the future. This is the core of what makes ghosts and haunted house stores work: When a piece of media captures something that you should not see, something that reveals knowledge of a past or future event that should not be, and when that revelation is so subtle that it can only be uncovered through close inspection of a moment captured in time. When you see a ghost or something that could be a ghost in an old photograph, the false perception of time that experience of consciousness lulls us into suddenly fails and you wonder to yourself how often you've seen or remembered things and filtered them out, how much of your memory is reliable, and what could exist in the gaps between memories.

This is, once again, something I could write a whole post about and should return to at some future point, but all of this is to say that Grave Encounters has its problems where it can't hold back from showing the ghosts as completely unambiguous entities, and not only that but entities that have the ability to physically attack the characters in the movie. This robs ghosts of the abstract terror they represent of our perception of the world being a hallucination, since the movie makes them function in ways that work more or less by the rules of how we typically perceive things. It's frustrating and annoying, and worse still is that by the end of the movie it's revealed that the reason why the asylum is haunted is because the head psychiatrist was performing Satanic rituals on the patients that involved surgical mutilations and lobotomies (though of course there's also a book laying around that has Nordic runes in it for some fucking reason). It's a frustrating, conventional ending to the movie, but there's enough along the way to make me really enjoy it nonetheless.

As I said, the core of what makes ghosts scary is how space and time are handled, and for whatever faults this movie has with for some reason needing to show the ghosts very blatantly, it does also understand this and uses it to great effect. Most of the conflict in the movie doesn't come from the ghosts in the asylum, but rather the asylum itself. In fact, the ghosts are seemingly only there because you expect them to be there, because they're supposed to be there in a spooky found footage movie. But the real horror comes from the asylum the characters find themselves trapped in as time and space cease to function normally. Their clocks continue to move forward, but the night never ends, and there are maps of the asylum but the geometry of the building is constantly and imperceptibly shifting. It's incredibly simple and easy to work into a movie with a small budget, but it's also effective. This is one of the few movies I've seen where it manages to do something that is actually a little unnerving and it's completely abstracted away from what would normally be the core material of a movie like this.

As I said at the start, the whole existence of this movie feels kind of implausible. I don't know how anyone managed to make a found footage movie of some people trapped in a spooky asylum that manages to still be kind of interesting and worth watching, that both does the stupid thing of showing the monster and explaining the monster but also seems to understand why the monster is scary and not only that but separates the scary elements of the monster from the monster itself. The time and space distortions in the movie are inherently unexplainable and can't really be filmed, at least without a big budget and some really stupid schlocky special effects, and the scariest hook that the movie has is not even the thing that the audience is supposed to be scared of. It makes me wonder if the directors of the movie are secretly geniuses and are commentating on the nature of ghosts and ghost hunting shows or even found footage in general (which was also on the way out of being a trend by the time this was made), poking fun at the absurdity of people like Zach Baggans by having spooky ghosts in the movie that are shown unambiguously with comically bad CGI effects, and then doing it one better by taking the core of what makes ghosts scary and turning it into a complete abstraction that is nevertheless actually scary conceptually. Though I suspect that all of this is happened completely by accident or that this is all me reading way too much into the movie.

Anyways, recommended obviously.

Footnotes:

1

I am almost certainly going to retread some ground from Ghosts of My Life and honestly I really need to get around to reading that.

Created: 2023-07-24 Mon 03:45

Last updated: 2024-03-05 Tue 22:36