Tag Archives: mental hospital

Halloween Home Video #5: John Poliquin’s Grave Encounters 2

by Dan Fields
First published October 17, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Grave Encounters 2 promotional poster

© 2012 Arclight Films

For Your Indie Wrap Party

This pick came as a big surprise, and while it may not measure up to the strongest entries in this list, it deserves more credit and attention that a dismissive first glance at its trailer might suggest.

Grave Encounters is the brainchild of the the Vicious Brothers, also known as Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, who reached into the “found footage” horror genre – a market teeming with derivative second-rate junk – and pulled out a genuinely scary and satirical work. The film frames its footage as the final, never-completed episode of a popular “ghost hunter” television show entitled Grave Encounters. Host Lance Prescott (Sean Rogerson) brings his crew to an abandoned Canadian mental hospital with a history of… you guessed it… ritual abuse and horrific secret experiments. We find out the following things in rapid sequence: The show is a total sham, the hospital is really haunted, and these showbiz folk are completely doomed.

With its lo-fi effects and melodramatic performances, this film achieves nothing new but manages to be truly scary and fun. The pace meanders, as will happen without fail within the genre, but the Vicious Brothers pull it off with much more grace and subtlety than you might expect. This is not a garden variety Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch ripoff. It has something of its own to contribute to the Halloween feast.

Deftly exploiting the polarized reactions to the first film, the Vicious Brothers wasted no time in penning a sequel. Be warned: if self-referential isn’t your thing, Grave Encounters 2 will irritate you. The film leads off with a number of amateur fan reviews both praising and lambasting the various aspects of Grave Encounters until we zero in on Alex (Richard Harmon), a lone fan who has begun to wonder if the events of the movie might have happened for real. This is a sequel in which the first film exists within the world of the second film. But don’t worry, nobody is going to get centipeded to anyone else. (Spoiler/Promise)

Alex is an aspiring director of horror films, and bears all the hallmarks of a film student in his most insufferable phase. He writes scenes that ape the most popular conventions of the genre, then curses them for their artlessness in the middle of shooting. He proclaims himself a spiritual heir to the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven. He even goes so far as to tell his ingenue/prospective girlfriend that he’s going to make her the next big scream queen. I mean, we were all like that once, right?

In his pursuit of the truth behind Grave Encounters, Alex sees an opportunity to achieve overnight importance in the horror genre. He scraps his slasher and assembles the same cast and crew for a guerrilla documentary based on the expedition in the first Grave Encounters. Considering what may have befallen a trained television crew of adults in the halls of the mysterious hospital, imagine what a bunch of teens without shooting permits or clearly defined goals have in store for them.

Viewing and enjoying the original Grave Encounters is not absolutely essential to appreciating the sequel, but it makes the experience a good deal richer. And frankly if you don’t care for 1, you probably won’t like 2. It is definitely not the stronger of the two films, but it achieves several blood-chilling moments that are more than sufficient payoff for the investment of time and energy. The third act of Grave Encounters 2 spirals into improbable silliness, even compared to the rest of the movie, but along the way you will find your hungry nerve endings rewarded. That nasty Apex Twin monster from the poster is not just a promotional tease. He will be along eventually, as well as an ECT scene that will put you right off radical brain treatments.

The best way to see the Grave Encounters films, if you can manage it, is as a three-hour double feature. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but they complement one another nicely. There may be more promise in these movies than substance, but even in the dangerously clogged drain of B-horror, clever ideas continue to lurk.

Halloween Home Video #4: Alexandre Courtès’s Asylum Blackout

by Dan Fields
First published October 15, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Promotional poster for horror thriller The Incident aka Asylum Blackout

© 2012 IFC Films

For The Night Of The Big Storm

Asylum Blackout is a fine example of what can be achieved with a small budget and a simple idea. Good fundamentals and steady pace allow the makers of this film to economize on complexity, and the result is a satisfying no-frills thriller.

It is 1989 in the Pacific Northwest, and George (Rupert Evans) is the lead guitarist for a struggling rock band (though the movie never states it, I secretly hope that Asylum Blackout is also the name of the band). To keep themselves in food and shelter between gigs and recording sessions, he and his mates work as the kitchen staff of an asylum for the criminally insane. Despite the bleak institutional environment, George takes care to prepare nice meals for the inmates and treat them with personal respect as far as his job allows. While not exactly a futile ministry, this only seems to have positive effects as long as nothing else agitates them. At least it shows that George is basically a good guy trying to live well in a thankless and dangerous position.

The asylum guards keep a tight lid on even the most benign troublemakers, but times are hard and the facility is ominously understaffed these days. So much depends on an uninterrupted routine. George begins to notice an inmate named Harry Green (Richard Brake) giving him the eye, and possibly urging other inmates off their daily sedatives. Before he can voice his suspicions (perhaps stalled by wanting to spare his charges undue punishment), a massive thunderstorm knocks out the power in the asylum. In a mildly underwritten chance catastrophe – the script’s main weak point – the auxiliary power supply fries itself in a power surge, leaving the asylum in darkness with a whole ward of psychos out of their cells for feeding. For the rest of the film, George and his pals try desperately to escape the increasingly violent uprising that ensues. Once the inmates take down their first guard, they acquire things like keys and weapons, and the kitchen becomes quite a fearsome arsenal indeed.

Asylum Blackout relies on the simplicity of its narrative for strength, and does not overanalyze the pathology of Harry Green and the more villainous prisoners leading the charge. This is no Shutter Island, in other words. When George finally does have the opportunity to ask “Why?” he receives a clear and extremely disturbing answer.

The moral ambiguity of this movie may frustrate some, but pessimists will relish it. Conditions at the asylum are harsh, but the exact level of cruelty going on in private at the hands of the guards is unknown. Clearly they do not treat the prisoners as gently as George does, but whether or not they were asking for an uprising, or could have prevented it, remains a subject for dark speculation. To be sure, Harry Green is a pure force of evil. He has the look of a bloodthirsty hoodlum straight out of Brighton Rock, with a dash of the Joker for good measure.

Director Alex Courtès paints the background of Asylum Blackout nicely, with spare production design and dreary exteriors of Washington in the rain. The venues where the band records and plays are as nondescript and forbidding as the asylum where they work by day. Being trapped against all reason and hope is of symbolic importance to all these characters long before it takes on material significance. An escape plan is something that George and his buddies should have thought about a long time before now.