Review: ‘The Gravedancers’

Desecrating a burial site isn't such a good idea in "The Gravedancers," a modestly budgeted yet effects-heavy horror opus. Pic isn't sure just how seriously it means to be taken, with unintentional laughs in the straight-faced early going before over-the-top content pushes it toward the comedy-horror terrain of the "Evil Dead" series.

Desecrating a burial site isn’t such a good idea in “The Gravedancers,” a modestly budgeted yet effects-heavy horror opus. While less tongue-in-cheek than helmer Mike Mendez’s prior “The Convent,” pic isn’t sure just how seriously it means to be taken, with unintentional laughs in the straight-faced early going before over-the-top content pushes it toward the comedy-horror terrain of the “Evil Dead” series and Peter Jackson’s “The Frighteners.” New effort is uneven and over-reminiscent of prior fantasy faves, but it’s also flashy and entertaining enough to win favor from the genre faithful. In most territories, home formats will serve better than theatrical.

Reunited at the funeral of their friend Devin, Harris (Dominic Purcell), Kira (Josie Maran) and Sid (Marcus Thomas) haven’t seen each other very much since they comprised a tight collegiate quartet over a decade ago. The drifting-apart is resented by stubbornly immature Sid, while sex bomb Kira still carries a torch for ex-b.f. Harris. That last is not lost on Harris’ wife Allison (Clare Kramer).

After the funeral, Sid guilt-trips Harris and Kira into partying for old times’ sake, as Devin presumably would have wanted them to. Trio ends up drunk at the cemetery, where a curious bereavement card left on their pal’s tombstone invites them to celebrate life by dancing on the graves of the dead. Rather incredibly, they do.

Several sober days later, Harris and Allison start experiencing poltergeist-y disturbances. Allison is sure it’s Kira. But when they pay an accusatory visit, they find Kira cowering and badly beaten, claiming she was assaulted by an unknown spirit.

After checking her into the hospital, the couple discovers Sid’s apartment staked out by paranormal researchers Vincent (Tcheky Karyo) and Frances (Megahn Perry), and they all witness an invisible being’s flaming footprints.

The spook-detecting pros theorize that the gravedancing awoke hostile dead spirits which now will terrorize the dancers with increasing strength each night for one full lunar cycle. Eventually the friends move into the paranormal research institute (conveniently housed in a creepy old mansion) to wait out the worst.

Last reels are a haunted-house nightmare in line with recent remakes of “The Haunting” and “House on Haunted Hill,” offering a similar f/x-dependent thrill-ride despite limited (if resourceful) production means.

Mendez handles action and jolts handily enough to make these frantic fantastical sequences enjoyable. But they don’t mesh very smoothly with the earlier reels’ feeble attempts at psychological realism, sabotaged largely by dialogue the thesps can’t salvage.And the resurrected dead, when eventually seen, aren’t very frightening.

Perfs are OK, though thick-necked Purcell (from TV skein “Prison Break”) comes off a tad stolid. He can hardly be blamed for failing to convince under the circumstances, however.

This spookshow should have embraced its eventual over-the-topness rather than trying for naturalism. A vivid prologue in which a terrified woman is killed by an unseen force — nastier than anything that follows — never gets connected to the subsequent central narrative.

Running a wide gamut from puppeteering and animatronics to digital compositing and green-screen, f/x work is as busy as it is diverting. Other design/tech contribs are sharp.

The Gravedancers

Production

An Arclight Films presentation of a Code Entertainment production in association with Prophecy Films. Produced by Al Corley, Lawrence Fuhrmann Jr., Bill McCutchen, Eugene Musso, Bart Rosenblatt. Executive producers, Jonathan Dana, Brent Emery, Mark Morgan, Guy Oseary. Co-producers, Craig Borden, Jonas Hudson, Kim Olsen. Directed by Mike Mendez. Screenplay, Brad Keene.

Crew

Camera (color), David A. Armstrong; editors, Mendez, Stuart Pappe; music, Joseph Bishara; production designer, Carmi Gallo; set decoration, Sophia Madalana Martinez; sound (Dolby Digital), Michael McDonald; digital FX supervisor, Chris Ervin; VFX supervisor, Kelley Roy; assistant director, Craig M. Burden; casting, Janet Hirshenson, Jane Jenkins, Michelle Lewitt. Reviewed at Another Hole in the Head, San Francisco, June 10, 2006. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Dominic Purcell, Josie Maran, Clare Kramer, Marcus Thomas, Megahn Perry, Tcheky Karyo, Oakley Stevenson.

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