Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Some films are destined, for one reason or another, to never really receive a chance at fair appraisal from the more “serious” horror geeks in the audience. This is a possibility in any horror subgenre, but is especially likely when it comes to one in particular: found footage. It’s a niche unlike any other, and one that tends to automatically stir up intense reactions, both positive and negative, among horror devotees. Certainly, there’s no other subgenre that conjures such immediate disdain from so many people who are otherwise cosmopolitan in their horror viewing habits, but that knee-jerk disgust isn’t necessarily without good cause. Let’s face it: There’s been a veritable mountain of terrible found footage horror since the genre sputtered to life in the 1990s and exploded in volume in the late 2000s. But perhaps the most unfortunate effect of all those garbage films is the casual dismissal by so many horror geeks of some of the subgenre’s best efforts. And that most definitely includes 2011’s Grave Encounters, a low-budget symphony of minimalist horror filmmaking that gets the maximum scares out of every dollar spent.
The obvious point of comparison is of course Paranormal Activity, because everything in this particular subgenre, for better or worse, has come back to Paranormal Activity since 2007. Its arrival that year was a sea change for horror, and one that had a much more direct effect than the DIY success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Whereas that pioneering film didn’t necessarily inspire a huge wave of commercial imitation or follow-ups, Paranormal Activity opened the found footage floodgates. And one of the reasons why is that Oren Peli’s film was just that effective—viewers like to pretend now that Paranormal Activity was somehow not frightening, but I can safely say that I’ve never been in a theater audience that was more actively terrified than people were watching that movie in 2007. Rightly praised at the time of release for its gripping tension and subtle FX on a shoestring budget of $15,000, it went on to gross more than $193 million worldwide, becoming one of the defining genre events of the decade. With that kind of insane profit margin, the imitators were inevitable, and so was the ensuing wave of both shameless profiteering and subsequent audience backlash.
Looking at some of the films that followed, you can’t exactly blame horror fans for developing an aversion to found footage horror. They possess the kinds of titles you may have seen at the time, and then promptly exiled from your memory. There was Atrocious, for instance. Or Apollo 18. There’s The Devil Inside, or The Pyramid. And of course, most prominently, all those lesser Paranormal Activity sequels, none of which were able to rekindle the understated appeal of the original. It was while these films were souring audiences on the concept that Canada’s Grave Encounters was crawling up out of the dark.
This is not not a film with what you’d call a concerted effort toward character development. Nor is it really asking for you to perceive it as some clever metaphor for our society, though it does do an impeccable job of skewering a specific brand of TV charlatan. Grave Encounters doesn’t have lofty ambitions in general—its only desire is to scare you, and there’s a purity in this limited aim. It wants to startle you; to rattle you when you’re not expecting it; to impress you with its resourcefulness in deploying DIY visual effects. And on every one of those fronts, the film knocks it out of the park. What directors Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz pulled off visually on this movie’s reported $120,000 budget is frankly incredible—orders of magnitude more complex than what the likes of Paranormal Activity tried to do, and in a much more ambitious setting. This is what most zero-budget horror filmmakers wish they could make happen.
Our characters are a crew of reality TV paranormal investigators, very much in the mold of Ghost Hunters and especially the dude-bro insouciance of Ghost Adventures. The film wastes no time in making us understand the most important thing: Every person on this crew is a huckster, and none of them truly believe in the supernatural. They’re everything that any normal viewer has ever suspected TV ghost hunters to be—cynical con men with carefully constructed TV personalities, gleefully rolling into locations like abandoned hotels and mental hospitals so they can traipse around in the dark, stage evidence of hauntings and pretend to see and hear things for the benefit of the cameras. Actor Sean Rogerson nails the arrogant vibe of team leader Lance Preston, a pitch-perfect parody of insufferably douchey Ghost Adventures host Zak Bagans, and they’ve even brought along a fake spiritual medium to boot. It’s an eviscerating satire of one of TV’s most unkillable reality TV subgenres.
From the start, then, you clearly know where this is going—the team of cynical paranormal investigators is going to tamper in the wrong domain, and come across some genuine ghosts in the process. That’s the promise you’ve been sold on in hitting “play” on Grave Encounters, and that’s really all the film would have had to deliver to be a nominal success—some shaky-cam footage of ghosts and people running around in the dark. What the viewer doesn’t expect is how much further Grave Encounters is going to take things, and how much more creative it’s going to be in thrusting these characters into a setting that is less “haunted house” and more “parallel dimension.”
There’s a wonderful sequence, about halfway through the film, that illustrates this deeper commitment to metaphysical horror ideas. Things have started going wrong in the investigation, people have gone missing, and the crew decides that enough is enough—it’s time to remove the hokey padlock that is so dramatically keeping them from walking out the front door. And so, with some effort, they break through the front door … only to find that what was once the exit to the exterior of the building now contains only more hallways. And moreover, wasn’t the sunrise due an hour ago? What first appeared to be a simple haunted house setting slowly becomes more of a rubber reality funhouse, in which the laws of time and space are deteriorating away before our eyes. And at the same time, the gimmick of staging static reality TV cameras throughout the asylum gives us a welcome break from handheld camera perspectives, allowing us to see the untimely ends of several characters via clever FX shots that wouldn’t have worked from a first-person perspective. The end result is less Blair Witch-style scrambling, and more a film delivered as a finished assembly of both first-person and security camera footage, a “last known whereabouts” broadcast that depicts the inexplicable.
In the end, Grave Encounters is an effectively simple, shoestring horror success story, filled with old-school, well-executed jump scares and powered by a genuine desire to frighten its audience. It’s simply too well made to get lumped in with the more deplorable found footage horror offerings of the era. The Devil Inside, this ain’t.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.