Directed by Mike Mendez
Five years is enough time to bring about change in anyone, wouldn’t you say? Enough time to grow, so to speak. Get in touch with your inner ghoul. Mike Mendez – if this film is any indication – has done a lot of growing, and his fascination for those lethal things that lurk in the dark hasn’t diminished any. His last effort, The Convent – which he completed five years back – was a stylized mixture of camp and over-the-top gore. A demonic nun, black light-filled, schizophrenic haunted house trip for the patience deprived horror lot who like their thrills fired into their synapses with all the power and subtlety of a canon. The Gravedancers, despite a similarly frenzied and downright vicious start, is a different entity altogether. An exacting ghost story wielding an old school fright mentality that works its way under your skin to do one mean Irish jig all over your nerves.
Mendez hasn’t lost his playful bite over years. He lays it on thick in Gravedancers‘ spook-heavy second half leaving the set-up to rely on Robert Wise-inspired shenanigans as the story introduces us to a trio of friends – Harris (Purcell), Kira (Maran) and Sid (Thomas) – who are brought together by the death of a school chum. The night of the funeral, Harris – sans wife, Allison (Kramer) – partakes in some catching up time with Kira, an old flame, and Sid. Their journey to the local pub leads to a night at the graveyard where the trio discover a poem of sorts written on a mysterious black card. Liquored up, they read the poem aloud, dancing (as it asks them to do) on some nearby graves. It’s childishly absurd and a somewhat innocent act of disrespect to the dead, there’s worse that could be done, but Sid decidedly takes the desecration a step further by pissing all over the base of a headstone.
Days pass and everyone goes about their daily routine until Kira becomes unreachable. Harris questions her whereabouts while Allison starts to get the good ol’ stalker-fashion hang-up phone calls that would imply Kira is trying to pursue Harris again. But that becomes far from the truth when the tried and true indications of a haunting begin to freak out the happily married couple in their own home. Doors open on their own. The floorboards and pipes creak and moan. Allison even hears the sound of a woman’s laughter emanating from the bedroom further driving her suspicions that Kira’s sniffing around where she doesn’t belong. Kira eventually surfaces, as does Sid who has been strangely absent since the funeral. Reunited, the trio, including Allison, learn from Vincent (Karyo) – a local paranormal specialist – that they’re being hunted by three ghosts. Specifically, three murderous spirits who didn’t take too kindly to the desecration that went on. Upon investigation, our gang further discover they only have a matter of time before the spooks gain strength and lay their prey to rest.
Gravedancers extracts the scary adult horrors of Poltergeist (you know, the “this movie should’ve been R-rated stuff”) and combines it with a ferocity akin to The Evil Dead. Mendez paces himself early on, recognizing quickly that he needs to present us with some convincing characters who won’t be upstaged by the effects. They’re not a complicated bunch. Harris and Allison are a believable pair, actress Clare Kramer playing the rightfully territorial wife especially well. Tchéky Karyo, as Vincent, and his assistant Culpepper (Megahn Perry of The Convent) become the film’s true comedic relief, a task which should have fallen on Marcus Thomas’ portrayal of Sid. He ultimately falls flat in spite of the script’s insistence to make Sid the guy film-goers should immediately connect with. You can practically hear the writers smacking their foreheads in disappointment over Thomas’ delivery. Nevertheless, the dynamic of the group is what counts here and they are a pleasing bunch to follow as they try to avoid their impending doom. Complementing the misfortune of the situation, Saw and Saw II photographer David Armstrong cuts himself loose from the sterile whites and earthy color tones of those two films to paint a cold, de-saturated portrait of Gravedancers‘ world.
Initially, Mendez sets you up for a few solid jolts through well-timed and chilling sound effects. The Haunting comes to mind, but there’s even a nice slice of J-horror when Allison discovers a black haired woman crawling across her bed. This all somewhat falls away later on for a more modern, loud, in-your-face supernatural swagger loaded with decent CG visual effects as we get some backstory on the ghosts and they begin to take on their physical manifestations (like an ax-wielding, floating crone). Audiences might take issue with the tone, however, which sustains a level of seriousness throughout – an amazing contrast to the college-level laughs of The Convent – since the film’s palpable straight-faced vibe is reliant on building anxiety through a subtler approach. In a pivotal scene involving some corpse exhumation (with wild results), though, these frights take a drastic turn and set the speed for the rest of the film. Mendez ramps up the funhouse antics loading Gravedancers‘ finale with screaming cadavers and Spectral (Hellboy) Motion-created grim grinning ghosts who are certainly not out to socialize. Punctuated by a pair of unsettling invisible attacks on the female cast, devoid of The Entity‘s exploitive edge, it’s obvious that Mendez is determined to go for the goosebumps this time around and not the funny bone. Here’s to hoping we won’t have to wait so long for his next movie.