Killtoberfest 2 – #5: Grave Encounters / Dog Soldiers

In All, Movies by Kyu

Killtoberfest 2: Kill Me Twice, Shame On Me continues on. This time it’s two meh movies that, despite their very different concepts, styles, and intentions, end up drawing from the same school of horror. Specifically, that’s the school where a group of co-workers have a job go wrong, leaving them isolated and hunted by something they never would have believed in. When you say it like that, I’d think they both owe a debt to Alien, eh?

First up, Grave Encounters, a 2011 entry in a tiny-but-growing category of films that remind me of SCP Foundation entries (also on that list: Oculus, Cabin in the Woods).

Grave Encounters is another found footage movie, and of the ones I’ve seen, it takes more cues than any from The Blair Witch Project. If you’re gonna steal, steal from the greats, I guess… but GE would have done better not to invite the comparison, as it can’t help but come off worse.

The story (after a brief, Megan is Missing-style calling-your-shot intro) concerns a group of amateur filmmakers (Blair Witch alert!). Instead of a student documentary, these guys make one of those cheesy ghost hunter shows for a third-rate cable production company. For episode 6 of Grave Encounters the show, the ghost hunters choose an abandoned mental hospital. After some initial interviews, they set up cameras and lock themselves in for the night. This turns out to have been a bad idea.

The movie’s coolest idea is to take a minor note from Blair Witch (the idea that the kids in that film were trapped in some kind of warped space–“We walked for 15 hours today, we ended up in the same place!”) and expands upon it in a very SCPish way. I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that for these poor saps, escape is not an option. This gives some really neat motivation and detail to the group’s emotional and mental breakdown over the course of the film, and the penultimate scene draws some very nice, original horror from it.

That said, the film suffers from a lot of problems. For one thing, it missed the single most important lesson of TBWP: what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. And that kind of self-imposed limitation also leads to creativity. With the freedom to make its scares visual, GE soon settles into a very repetitive rhythm: character moves forward into room, character sees a figure, character approaches figure, figure turns around and makes loud noise and has a big CG mouth, character screams and runs away. That happens at least 352 times over the course of the movie, I counted.

The other main problem with the film is something that most horror movies get totally, totally wrong: they barely bother to characterize anyone. Why should they give time to giving a character personality and motivations if they’re just going to get killed/taken anyway? Why indeed. If you want me to care when they die–hell, if you want me to do more than wait, bored, for them to die–if you want to engage me in your film, you have to put more into your characters. GE gives us almost nothing, and for that reason more than any other, I was pretty checked out and definitely not scared.

Finally, on the subject of comparisons to better films, GE doesn’t even get a whole lot of mileage out of its location, the abandoned mental hospital. Setting it there just reminds me I could be watching Session 9 again. Session 9 isn’t a great movie, only pretty good, but it makes a creepy, atmospheric meal of its own abandoned mental hospital setting. Not only that, but Session 9 finds varied rooms and compositions and lighting schemes for the sake of visual variety. The empty rooms and hallways in GE just look boring most of the time, especially once the film mostly switches over to green night-vision footage.

Grave Encounters has a few good moments and a few good ideas. (I will say the film does a very good job of utilizing the visual limitations of a handheld frame–quite a few times the movie garners real tension by panning across room after room where something awful might lurk just outside our view.) But ultimately those flashes of interest are not enough to overcome the film’s mediocre scares and underwritten characters. It borrows from better movies you should go watch instead.

Next is a rewatch of Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, a movie that is not about dogs. It is about soldiers, though, so half credit.

Half credit is also kind of my review. I know it’s not only unfair but temporally implausible to compare Dog Soldiers to Marshall’s subsequent masterpiece, The Descent, but I just can’t help it. The Descent feels like Marshall perfecting what he first attempted here, and so I can’t help but judge Dog Soldiers as not holding up to that work.

Take The Descent and turn it from a refreshingly all-female cast to a boringly all-male cast, make the story a military training exercise gone wrong instead of a spelunking trip gone wrong, and switch out the WUFs for werewolves, and you’ve pretty much got a handle on what this movie is about. The hypermasculine values can’t be stressed enough–this is a movie about soldiers shooting guns and growling at each other and yelling at each other for not being man enough to kill a dog for no reason. Of course, it’s the dog who turns out to be the real villain of the piece, so poor decision there, Private Cooper.

I could keep on listing the attributes of the film but from a technical perspective most of them really do boil down to “not as well lit, directed, written, edited, etc as The Descent” and, while true, that’s kind of boring. Not boring is that the movie has probably the single highest “length of time between set-up and punchline”/”actual humor value of joke” ratio I’ve ever seen, in that the payoff comes almost at the end of the movie and the joke is so stupid you’re actually flabbergasted that Marshall arranged the necessary elements 90 minutes ago in order to make it work. It’s a shaggy dog joke, no pun intended, but those generally should take less effort and, again, be worth the effort (it only took Asimov like 5 pages to write a sci-fi story that ends with “A niche in time saves Stein,” and that’s way more clever than this joke). It may seem kind of ridiculous to harp on one line of the movie like this, but I contend it’s far more ridiculous for this line to exist at all.

As a werewolf movie this is okay, which is to say it’s the second or third best werewolf movie ever made, because werewolf movies suck and that’s all there is to it. I find the costumes kind of silly–the heads are pretty leonine–but I suppose they function decently within the story.

The other main problem with the movie, besides just a general lack of Descent-ness, is the climactic monologue by the female character. I’d spoil this but I barely understand it myself. Keeping it vague: the things she says, she says for no reason, other than misogyny on the part of the filmmakers and a need to force a twist. It’s the weirdest, stupidest moment in a movie that has more than its share of those.

This is not to say the movie doesn’t have its good points. I like Sean Pertwee as the compassionate Sergeant and Kevin McKidd as Cooper, his second in command. The movie is never boring and the concept is nothing that couldn’t have been fixed by switching out the werewolves for some other, better monster. Ooh, and maybe you could switch out the men for women? And make them friends instead of soldiers, and have them go cave-diving instead of–well, you get the idea. Sadly, the real question isn’t “What happened that Marshall improved so much between his first two films,” it’s “What the hell happened afterwards?” Doomsday is awful and Centurion got middling to poor reviews; since then Marshall has stuck to directing television. It’s an odd thing to see a man produce one inexplicable masterpiece in an otherwise trashy (albeit short) career. If Marshall made consistently excellent movies, Dog Soldiers would be an interesting bit of auteur juvenilia. Instead, it’s just juvenile.

Warning: the following trailer is one of those shitty import trailers where they have to explain to you how good the movie is rather than just selling it like a normal film:

And here’s the much, much better trailer for The Descent:

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