11/25/11

Ectovember: Grave Encounters on a Ghostwatch

Last week when I was talking about House of Bones, I mentioned a couple other films that shared a similar plot line, a ghost hunting TV show gets more than they expected. Those films were the punningly titled Grave Encounters from Tribeca Films and Ghost Watch which originally aired on BBC1. In the last week, I caught up with both of these, and with only one week left in Ectovember, I thought I would talk about them both. They present two very interesting and different views of ghost hunting shows, British and American views on the supernatural, and how best to utilize a limited budget. I'll go ahead and say right up front that these are the two finest examples of the ghost hunter horror films that I have encountered, and both of them mine the television concept effectively and with precision.

Grave Encounters is set up like a found footage film with a tacked on beginning featuring a producer who has been sent a tape of a proposed series called, you guessed it, Grave Encounters. Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) leads his team of paranormal investigators into Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, a site where supernatural phenomena has been reported for years. The hospital has a history of murder, lobotomies, and insanity ingrained into it, but the team is more fascinated by how creepy the place will look on camera. After being locked in for the night, they soon find that the hospital offers up much more than an eerie locale. As one of the team goes missing, the others are menaced by ever growing ghostly activity which forces them into breaking down the chained door they entered through, but behind they find only more halls. As endless night stretches on, Lance and the crew begin to surrender their bodies and their minds to whatever evil lurks in the hospital walls.

Without a doubt, Grave Encounters sets its sights on two particular paranormal shows, Ghost Adventures and Paranormal State. Lance's show intro for Grave Encounters is nearly a verbatim melding between those two shows' preamble. (For the record, Adventures is silly fun while State is among the worst that the paranormal reality genre has to offer.) Throughout, writer/ directors The Viscous Brothers (Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz) absolutely nail the patterns of speech used in ghost hunting shows as well as correct use of terminology and actions. I completely believed that the characters responded in the way their real life counterparts would in the same situation, with a mixture of fear, intrigue, steady unremitting disbelief, and the absolute need to put everything on tape. The movie goes for almost an hour before a big scare happens, creating tension throughout the first hour with small happenings and good old fashioned personal conflict between the characters. When the effects work finally intrudes, that is where the film stumbles somewhat. With a larger budget, the effects would have felt much cleaner and less forced, but I do have to give it up to them for showing something and not taking the cop out Blair Witch route.

Despite the occasionally hamfisted effects, Grave Encounters is really a movie that hinges on the actors. Most of the weight in this regard is taken on by Sean Rogerson as Lance. Sean does a heck of a job drawing the audience in with his as he succumbs to horror and madness, but by the end of the film, he took it a bit over the top for me. However, his performance can be seen as a perfect example the decent into Lovecraftian insanity, and it is very telling that his only link to normalcy comes through the lens of a camera. I was equally impressed by Mackenzie Gray as the "psychic" Houston. I would be hard pressed to believe that this character was not based on debunked British psychic Derek Acorah. His performance was highly entertaining, and I really liked that his character was a self aware charlatan but when shit went down he stuck to his shtick in hopes that it would save him. Merwin Mondesir, Ashleigh Gryzko, and Juan Riedinger all give effective performances to round out the team, and no one really felt like they didn't carry their weight.

Ghostwatch takes a slightly different angle on the found footage film by presenting itself on television as a live spectacle. Host Micheal Parkinson and Sarah Greene invite viewers to join them as they investigate a home in Northolt, London reported to be the most haunted home in England. They present both photographic and audio evidence backing up the claims of Pamela Early (Brid Brennon) and her daughters Kim and Suzanne (Michelle and Cerise Wesson) who have been troubled by a spirit that the young girls call "Pipes". While Parkinson and paranormal researcher Dr. Pescoe (Gillian Bevan) remain in the studio to take calls and analyse the evidence, Sarah joins the family in their home where strange happenings slowly begin to unfold. At first it seems like it might only be the work of the daughters creating a hoax, but as the night wears on, the spirit begins to strengthen, affecting the family, the studio, and even the viewers at home.

Airing October 31st, 1992 on BBC1, Ghostwatch was preceded a short title sequence indicating the writer's name and that it was part of the dramatic Screen One series, but many viewers missed that entirely and assumed that the events unfolding on the screen were real. To stem some of the panic they expected to cause, director Lesley Manning had included a number where people could call into to the "show" and share their own ghost stories. When viewers called in, they were let in on the fact they show was fictional. However, the phone lines remained so clogged many couldn't get through, and Ghost Watch created a mini-War of the World's style hysteria. As such, BBC has never repeated the program, and it was only released on VHS years ago. (Thankfully it's in its entirety on Google video and linked below.) What also made the program especially believable was that Parkinson and Greene were respected British television personalities. Parkinson was a venerated journalist and Greene a children's television presenter. (In sort of a twist Yvette Fielding, host of Most Haunted, which clearly based the format of its live events ten years later off Ghostwatch, also started out in kid's TV.) The natural reactions of all the actors, both playing themselves and characters, really sell the whole affair.

Where Ghostwatch really shines is where Grave Encounters faltered, the effects. Ghostwatch chose to keep it subtle with vague images that happen and then are gone in a blink of an eye. I had the advantage of being able to watch scenes over and over, but I can imagine that many home viewers were disturbed by things they thought they might have seen. The director did a great job integrating the ghostly presence into the film. In one instance a scene is looked over three times by Parkinson and the Doctor to determine if a presence has appeared. In the first run, there is something in the frame. In the second, nothing is there, and in the third, there is a vague notion of a shape. A later instance showcases a full body apparition which disappears in the split second it takes for the camera to swing back around. Keeping it subtle (while still paying off and showing something) made Ghostwatch incredibly effective and believable. The only drawback that Ghostwatch has is its pacing. Having to keep in the context of live television often made it feel like it lost steam throwing back and forth between the studio and the haunted home.

One of the main differences between Ghostwatch and Grave Encounters is the cultural gap between North American and European view of the supernatural. In a recent poll over 70% of British respondents said they believe in ghosts. By comparison, the North American figure lingers around or below 50%. Grave Encounters works against the disbelief. The paranormal team is presented as a group of skeptics who are more concerned about making money than actually finding a ghost. Some of them even continue to deny far past the point of reason as a means of coping with the strain. The cast of Ghostwatch however seems eager to believe and have genuine concern for the family being haunted. When it looks like it is a hoax, the investigators genuinely seem crushed. I attribute the differing opinions on the supernatural to the dominance of religion in societal norms, and while North Americans predominately define themselves as Christians, attendance in churches across England and Europe as a whole are at an all-time low.

While neither Ghostwatch and Grave Encounters get it perfectly right, both films are very enjoyable watches. Hopefully someday, Ghostwatch will get an actual North American DVD release, but until then, i highly encourage folks to check it out online. With its television format, it is easily watched in chunks for your viewing pleasure. Grave Encounters, while not "the scariest movie since The Ring" as claimed by The New York Times, is a tense little actor's film with some really interesting supernatural elements. If you can forgive the first stumbling effects shot, you're in for a genuinely scary ride. I'm really interested to see what the next project for The Vicious Brothers will be as Grave Encounters is a hell of a film debut. Well, that wraps it up for Ectovember. I hope you enjoyed my look at haunted cinema (though it descended into ghost hunter territory), and come on back next month for more cult, horror, and genre goodies for the holiday season!

Bugg Rating
Grave Encounters


Ghost Watch



Ghost Watch in it's entirety! Woot!


Here's the trailer for Grave Encounters. Sadly the trailer spoils one of the film's big money shots. 

3 comments:

  1. What bothered me the most about Grave Encounters is that Lance spends so much time with his 'act' and dog and pony show, that when the shit hits the fan, it's difficult to empathize. Overall, there wasn't a single character I liked or cared about.

    Great concept though.

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  2. I agree there are no characters to care about, but apart from Most Haunted, let's face it I'm just in love with that show, there are no players on ghost hunting shows I would care about. For me, Lance is what would happen if shit went down for Zak Bagins from Ghost Adventures. The fame and fortune that it would bring him (a la Lance's "someones going to want to see this when we get out") would drive him to keep it going far beyond reason.

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  3. I knew GHOSTWATCH was "not real" going in, and yet it still managed to scare the crap out of me! I actually thought about pausing the dvd for a break during one of the more intense scenes...something to do with cats, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. :)

    I wish we could get an R1 dvd of Ghostwatch, but interest stateside is probably pretty low. Anyway, nice to see that people can view it if they want to. And they should, right now!

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