Director: John Poliquin
Cast: Richard Harmon, Leanne Lapp, Sean Rogerson, Dylan Playfair, Stephanie Bennett
Watch Grave Encounters online in the UK: Shudder UK
Every other weekend, our resident horror fanatic Anton Bitel delves into Shudder’s selection of horrors.
Found footage is one of the few subgenres whose name refers not (like, say, action or comedy) to content, nor (like horror) to an ideal viewer response, but rather to the films’ (fictive) materiality – which is to say that, for all its claims to veridicality, found footage makes an imaginary object of itself, and purports to be a different kind of film (evidential, discovered) from the fiction that we have elected to watch. In other words, found footage is inherently postmodern – a multiple (i.e. duplicitous) text that keeps proclaiming its difference from itself, and defying viewers to find their way through its various reflective layers of filmed reality and recorded fiction.
Sequels, too, come with a certain postmodernity, reflecting back, often with distortion or irony, on the mother source. Follow-ups are rarely more postmodern than when they include in their fictive universe an actual film version of the original movie – a trick played by, e.g., Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), Scream 2 and 3 (1999, 2000), The Human Centipede 2 and 3 (2011, 2015) and, in more complicated variations, by The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) and Headless (2015). It’s easy for found footage sequels to play these games, because the events in the original films purport already, by definition, to have been recorded as films or digital clips – and so it is that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) and Creep 2 (2017) can feature characters replaying actual footage from their originals. Yet no film takes this postmodernism quite so far as John Poliquin’s Grave Encounters 2, which, by looking back at the Vicious Brothers’ 2011 original (also on Shudder UK) both as found footage and as a constructed horror movie packaged for home entertainment, produces a conceptual hall of mirrors to match the labyrinthine asylum in which filmmaking characters will eventually become trapped (again).
Poliquin’s feature debut (still written by ‘Vicious Brothers’ Stuart Ortiz and Colin Minihan, who also cameo) opens with a montage of vloggers’ reviews of the Grave Encounters DVD release. The last vlogger shown, Alex Wright (Richard Harmon), takes particular exception to the way the film rounded off its uncanny events (“one of the worst fucking endings I have ever seen in my life”). A film school student, Alex is making his own horror film that he drunkenly claims will “reinvent the genre”. In fact, hilariously, his own film, Slash N’ Burn, is as cliché-bound as all the works that he criticises – but Alex is full of ambition and looking for something to kickstart new ideas for his own film. All his prayers seem to be answered when he receives from a Youtube user (with the handle ‘Death Awaits’) a mysterious video message, apparently a previously unpublished outtake from Grave Encounters, along with the precise coordinates of the Vancouver asylum where the original was shot.
“It’s just a movie,” fellow student and actress Jennifer (Leanne Lapp) assures her would-be lover Alex of the Vicious Brotthers’ film. “And, it’s not even a very good movie at that – just look at these special effects.” It is, however, too late – for, in need of a third act for Slash N’ Burn, Alex is already becoming obsessed with Grave Encounters, and starting to wonder if its filmed events might have been real after all. So he tries vainly to find Grave Encounters’ lead actor Sean Rogerson, and then heads off to Canada with his small film crew in tow, looking for both inspiration and resolution. He will find both – as well as a crazed Rogerson – in that familiar asylum, a place of resident evil, shifting architecture and paradoxical furnishings, where the boundaries between reality, nightmare, madness and film are very fluid.
While certainly, like any decent sequel, it revisits and revises scenes from the original, Grave Encounters 2 is also a Pirandello-esque film in search not just of its own ending, but of its own endless franchise, as footage lures ever more people to its haunted madhouse to generate yet more footage to lure more people. It is a viral phenomenon about a viral phenomenon, self-replicating via its mode of repeat scares and horrors from which there can never be any real escape (except maybe for the odd gatekeeper). So complete is its infinite incompleteness that there could be any number of further sequels, even if it is hard to imagine where else they could go. This one, though, is both funny and frightening – and while it certainly starts as conventional found footage, with every camera or phone putatively placed or operated by a character, by the end, as invisible presences eerily take over the cinematography, Grave Encounters 2 transgresses the ultimate boundary of its own subgenre rules and becomes an ‘objectively’ shot film. Those digicams may still be within, and part of, the story, but they are being used to make a sort of spiritual snuff, with one camera actually used as a murder weapon, with a movie-making ghost in the machine – a ghost that really wants its horror movie to find a receptive audience.
Grave Encounters 2 is available on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.
For more on Shudder UK, including news, reviews of films available now and previews of what’s coming soon, see VODzilla.co’s Shudder UK channel.