The recent found footage horror trend set off by Paranormal Activity hasn’t really produced much variation. In the end, it’s all the same thing: poorly drawn characters reacting to quick shots of ghostly things, the details hidden by the sketchiness of the aesthetic. Grave Encounters follows this exact same pattern, with the added bonus of the trite criticism of how reality shows aren’t actually real. At this point, if you’ve seen one found footage horror film, you’ve practically seen them all. This movie is no exception.
Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) hosts a ghost hunting reality show called Grave Encounters. For the sixth episode, he and his team lock themselves into an abandoned mental hospital with a strange, violent history. No one working on the show actually believes in ghosts, and much of the show itself is faked. But that night, they become witness to a couple of things beyond their wildest expectations. And when one of them suddenly disappears, they find that there might be a whole lot more to the hospital than they had ever imagined.
The film begins with a producer telling us that none of what we’re going to see is a movie. It’s supposed to be all real, edited from footage recovered from the shoot. Of all the clichés of found footage horror, this is probably the most tired one. And the film can’t even live up to that pretense. Because supposing that this stuff was real, then the edit doesn’t make any sense. Why would they include so much footage of the characters not experiencing anything weird? What would be the purpose of all the behind the scenes footage that shows how fake and scripted the reality show was?
Past that particular conceit, the film also strains credulity with what the characters choose to record. Apparently, their cameras never run out of tape or power. They pretty much just let the cameras run continuously, even during moments that have absolutely no relevance to the show. There is a scene, for example, that has the cameraman taking a call. He sets the camera down, but doesn’t stop recording, because that would rob the film of this moment of character exposition.
But the practical concerns of the conceit are just a small part of the film’s problems. In the end, it’s the generic, tame nature of the entire project that keeps it from being interesting. The characters are bland and uninteresting, and the scares are nothing audiences haven’t seen before. For a good long chunk of the film, it contents itself with moving objects. And when things finally get rolling, and the threats are revealed, the found footage conceit ensures that the audience only gets brief glimpses of everything. The acting is typically poor, but there isn’t a lot of material to work with.
Grave Encounters follows the found footage mold even when it contradicts its own reality show premise. The cameras clearly aren’t serving the production, but are capturing moments that can only work within the conceit of a movie. As tired as the genre is, this could have turned out to be somewhat interesting. But for the whole thing to work, the film needed to try much harder. As it is, it just plays out all the expected beats, looking to have people jump over the same things over and over again.