'Grave Encounters'

Horror pic's creepiness factor is sufficient to rate this a notch above genre average.

The crew for a fake TV ghost-hunting show has an unfortunate brush with genuine supernatural phenomena in “Grave Encounters.” Debut feature for duo Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, who’ve dubbed themselves the Vicious Brothers (not to be confused with fellow horror helmers the Butcher Brothers), treads by-now-familiar scary-mockumentary terrain. Nonetheless, the pic’s creepiness factor is sufficient to rate this a notch above genre average, with decent prospects for Tribeca’s planned Aug. 25 Stateside release to theaters and VOD. Some European territories have also been sold.

Reality-TV producer Jerry Hartfeld (Ben Wilkinson) introduces the action, explaining that his company was psyched about a program that had been pitched by an outside team of alleged “paranormal investigators.” Things were going well until episode six, he says, adding that what we are about to see is raw footage culled from 76 hours found in Maryland’s Collingwood Mental Hospital after the crew shot there.

Collingwood has been shuttered for nearly 50 years, but local residents and a caretaker (Bob Rathie) report having seen or heard signs of disturbance. An area historian reports the place had a reputation for miserable conditions, and that one doctor overly fond of practicing lobotomies was actually killed by a group of patients.

This is all grist for the mill of the “Grave Encounters” show’s host, Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), whose off-camera seriousness about the supernatural is exposed when he bribes the property’s gardener to make up a ghost-sighting story for the program. Lance and his crew — played by Ashleigh Gryzko, Juan Riedinger and Merwin Mondesir, plus Mackenzie Gray as a phony psychic — are duly locked in the vast, empty facility overnight by said caretaker in order to brave its terrors. Or at least fake it.

Gradually, however, they realize to their distress that no faking is necessary. Poltergeisty noises and inanimate-object movements lead to ghastly sights and ghostly violence. Tech guy Matt (Riedinger) goes missing. And when morning should come, along with the caretaker to unlock the front entrance (this being an asylum, all windows are barred), neither arrives — night becomes perpetual, marked “exits” now only lead to other hallways, as if the floor plan had been designed by Escher. The asylum has swallowed our protags into its own unending nightmare.

As usual in this sort of exercise, once things start going south, panicked characters get on our nerves as well as each other’s, yelling accusations of blame and arguing over escape strategies. The whole “found footage” conceit is never as persuasive here as in as in subgenre models “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity”; nor is pic as atmospheric or clever as Brad Anderson’s underrated “Session 9,” which was also set in a shuttered asylum.

Still, pacing is taut, the setting eerie, and eventual scares are fairly effective if never particularly original. If a somewhat formulaic air hangs over whole enterprise, it’s nonetheless creepier and less cookie-cutter than your average mainstream slasher. Tech/design factors are polished within the faux-verite concept.

Grave Encounters

Canada

Production

A Tribeca Film (in U.S.) release of a Tribeca Film in association with American Express presentation of a Digital Interference and Twin Engine Films production in association with Darclight. Produced by Shawn Angelski. Executive producers, Shawn Angelski, Colin Minihan, Stuart Ortiz, Mark Knechtel, Steve Sheils. Directed, written, edited by the Vicious Brothers.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Tony Mirza; music, Quynne Craddock; production designer, Paul McCulloch; costume designer, Natalie Simon; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Kepkay; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Vince Renaud; visual effects, the Vicious Brothers; assistant director, Michael Bender; casting, Laura Brooke Toplass. Reviewed at Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, May 10, 2011. (In Tribeca, Another Hole in the Head film festivals.) Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko, Juan Riedinger, Merwin Mondesir, Mackenzie Gray, Bob Rathie, Shawn Macdonald, Ben Wilkinson, Luis Javier.

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