Thursday, August 18, 2011

Grave Encounters: Old Nut Houses Never Die

In the bad old days, some pretty messed up stuff went down in insane asylums. Some, like Staten Island’s Willowbrook Mental Insitution (seen in the strange-but-true doc Cropsey), were eventually closed due to scandal. Of course, it is hard to repurpose imposing old buildings like that, so they often sit vacant, looking evil as they fall into decay. Such is very definitely the case with the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, where a foolhardy reality TV crew visits in the Vicious Brothers’ found-footage style Grave Encounters (trailer here) which screens at midnight in New York this coming Friday and Saturday, in advance of a full week-long engagement beginning September 9th.

Though his reality show’s ostensive purpose was to prove the existence of the paranormal, Grave Encounters host Lance Preston only believed in ratings. His final episode will fulfill its raison d’être, but he will not be around to take the bows. Only the videotape survives from that fateful night, which the audience sees as if it were airing as a special tribute to Preston and his late crew. Locking themselves in for the night, as per show protocol, Preston’s team only expected to film some eerily atmospheric scenes in the shadowy building. Fortunately, they were using professional grade cameras and fixed mounts, so the Blair Witchy shaky cam is kept to a minimum until the chaotic third act.

Indeed, the first two thirds of a Grave are surprisingly scary, largely because the Brothers Vicious take the time to fully set-up and exploit the creepy as all get-out Collingwood setting. As the crew explores, we get a sense of the asylum’s corridors and rooms, picking up hints of the horrors perpetrated therein. The Viciouses seem to understand what we do not see is far more frightening than what we do, only succumbing to more graphic horror movie conventions down the stretch. For instance, the sight of an abandoned wheel chair suddenly moving on its own accord is pretty spooky, whereas when malevolent entities finally start tossing the characters around thither and thus, it sort of breaks the spell.

Major kudos are due to production designer Paul McCulloch and his team, because the Collingwood location truly makes the film. Still, the cast, including Sean Rogerson as Preston, is game enough, never stepping on the subtler chills. For their part, the Vicious Brothers steadily increase the tension rather effectively, until they start showing more than suggesting. Ultimately though, Grave is a smartly executed, nifty little horror movie, well above the industry standard. Definitely recommended for genre fans (and worth demanding a screening at the film's website), Grave plays at midnight tomorrow (8/19) and Saturday (8/20) at the Village East and then returns for more bedlam in three weeks.