One of the better post-Paranormal Activity found footage movies is 2011’s GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, an energetic riff on reality TV ghost-hunting shows that’s both funny and genuinely scary. The small crew of an up-and-coming paranormal investigation series goes to an abandoned psychiatric hospital that, according to numerous sources, is haunted by the spirits of its former tortured patients. After the host, Lance (Sean Rogerson), interviews “eye-witnesses” to the place’s supernatural activity, he and his crew lock themselves inside the building overnight to record footage, all the while doubting if it’s actually haunted. It’s not exactly a surprise when they discover it is.
The first half of the film is comprised of the crew doing their intentionally hokey TV schtick and playing up the sensationalism of creaking doors and shadowy corridors. Things take a turn for the worse when Lance and crew become seemingly stuck in a time loop and are physically unable to leave the building, while constantly being bombarded by demonic attacks. The screenplay (by directors Stuart Ortiz and Colin Minihan) does a terrific job of juxtaposing the lighthearted goofiness of the first 30 or so minutes against a fun house of scary jolts in the remainder of the film. A good use of sound FX heightens the intensity of the atmosphere, leading to a bleak but honest ending.
One of the best horror mockumentaries of the last several years is the 2008 Australian film, LAKE MUNGO. A disturbing, layered mystery, Lake Mungo chronicles the events of the Palmers, a happy family from a small town who, after the tragic death of 16-year-old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker), begin to experience strange happenings around their home. When Alice’s brother, Mathew (Martin Sharpe), believes that Alice’s ghost is trying to communicate, the family seeks the help of a well-known psychic (Simon Wilton), which leads them down a road of shocking revelations.
An unsettling and surprisingly complex film, Lake Mungo isn’t your typical found footage movie. The script delves deeper into human interactions, and explores the unbalanced lives of seemingly normal family households and their inner secrets. In a sense, the story is more about the underlying dysfunctional reality of the Palmers than the supernatural plot. But that’s the brilliance of the screenplay (written by director Joel Anderson); it’s structured to mislead you, and then it pulls the rug out from underneath you by offering up twists and turns. Don’t think that Lake Mungo isn’t also an effective ghost tale, because it is, slowly building to a creepy, and startling, reveal that will get under your skin.
Tact is not something the people from The Asylum (Sharknado) have a lot of, and their 2010 release, 8213: GACY HOUSE, is a good example of tacky sensationalism. A group of paranormal researchers decide to investigate the house that was built over the foundation of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s home (demolished in 1979) to see if they can contact the murderer’s spirit. We’re never given any backstory to why these characters believe Gacy’s ghost haunts this location, but they spend a good amount of time setting up cameras around the building, performing a séance, and calling out to Gacy. At one point, a character pulls out the sweatshirt of her 14-year-old nephew in order to entice Gacy to appear! Oh, boy.
Sloppy and unconvincing, Gacy House is built on a wobbly narrative that has no core at its center. The movie exists solely to shock, yet the horror it presents is so superficial and dull that you can’t take any of it seriously. Unlike Paranormal Activity, which interwove a believable mythology around the action, Gacy House offers nothing in support of its paper-thin plot. It’s a hollow exercise in lowest common denominator filmmaking. And if you ever wanted to see the ghost of John Wayne Gacy clad in transparent underwear then this is the movie for you! | Lake Mungo: A– Grave Encounters: B+ Gacy House: D–