These days it’s fashionable to deride found footage as a way for studios to produce cheap films that make a lot more than their budget. To be fair, this does happen a lot and seems to be a widespread problem with the horror genre as a whole. Make a movie about something people have heard of (like Ouija) with body count and a few jump scares and voila, you have something that will make at least $5 million at the box office against a budget of $1 million. By making it found footage studios can pay even less for production: the first Paranormal Activity only cost $15,000 to make and grossed over $100 million in theaters. Because of this a lot of the story elements and atmosphere that are critical to enduring horror movies are either ignored or mishandled in found footage.
The best exception to this is Grave Encounters, a movie about a team of ghost hunters. They arrive at an abandoned hospital to film an episode of their TV show (“Grave Encounters”) and lock themselves in for the night. Take a wild guess what happens.
This is my go-to example of a found footage movie that’s outright scary. I don’t mean it has the most jump scares; anyone can make someone jump by slamming them with a sudden loud noise and horrific image (jump scares warrant their own discussion which I’ll be posting next week). There are a few of these, but they’re executed more effectively and are less predictable than in most modern horror movies.
It’s not the most graphic found footage movie I’ve seen either, though I’m pretty desensitized to most gore that I see on screen at this point. What sets this one apart are those elements that I mentioned earlier; story and atmosphere.
Grave Encounters’ story sets up the background for this hospital early on. We know that a lot of very bad things happened there, but enough of the details are left unknown so that there’s enough flexibility to bring in new horrifying elements throughout the running time. The characters expect to get a few eerie photos and to stage some creepy scenes (they bring in an actor to pretend to be a psychic at one point) but have no idea what they’ve walked into. In this way we as the audience are likewise surprised when we see just how much this hospital ignores the rules of reality.
All of this combines to create an atmosphere of hopelessness and helplessness for the characters. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for them and they are completely at the mercy of the world that they stumbled into. Every time they try a solution it either doesn’t work or blows up in their faces. By the end you almost want the characters to just die because the alternative for them is even worse.
Obviously this isn’t a perfect movie. The performances, while competent, aren’t going to be winning any Oscars, a handful of the scares are predictable, and some of the effects (especially the demon faces) are fake-looking enough to be distracting during a second viewing, but these don’t really get in the way of the elements which make this movie work. Turn off all the lights and just try to watch it alone.
Rating: 4/5 ★★★★