Directed by Steven R. Monroe
Distributed by Anchor Bay
Grave Halloween is a movie with zero graves and no Halloween. While it does technically take place during Halloween, don’t expect any girls in Little Red Riding Hood outfits to actually be werewolves. In fact, don’t expect any costumes or candy or anything to distinguish this day from any other.
Aside from someone explicitly saying that it is Halloween at the beginning, there is absolutely nothing to set apart the day the film took place from any given green and sunny forest day. Which is funny, because Aokigahara, the forest in which the film takes place, actually has seasons. In the summer it’s warm, in the winter it snows, and in autumn the leaves turn brown and fall off. Their inability to film the movie in conditions that fit the narrative is just the first misstep in a series of many that all come together to walk the film toward complete forgetability.
There are so many ways in which this movie went wrong, I should start by saying that I do not think the concept itself was at fault. Aokigahara, more ghoulishly known as “Suicide Forest,” is a spooky enough place for a group of filmmaking teens to get lost in. The real life macabre paired with the unknown dread of a “lost in the forest” movie can very easily come together in a pleasant package. Add in some cops with dubious intent and the natural isolation and confusion of the language barrier, and you might just manage to pull off a pretty good flick. Grave Halloween does not manage to do this.
Almost all of my problems with Grave Halloween are in its design. Aside from the nonsense title, nothing in the film comes together in a compelling way. The pieces are all there, but it never gels to become more than the sum of its parts. In a ghost movie where characters are being picked off one by one, it’s good to have both a sense for why they are being killed and why we should care. The why they are being killed is so loosely and vaguely established that it doesn’t hold up to even basic scrutiny, and the why we should care seems to have never even been considered. It’s like someone had a quota of kills to reach by the end of the movie, and as long as the victims bled blood, they would suffice.
Kaitlyn Leeb, an actress probably best known for being the new three-breasted lady in the Total Recall remake, plays Maiko, a Japanese girl who was adopted by Americans after her mother was institutionalized. Recently, her mother committed suicide within the forest but first sent her a box with an earring in it. This inspires her and a few friends to make a documentary about her mother, trekking into the woods with a camera to find her body.
If none of that makes sense to you, don’t worry because it’s all pointless. The characters have no reason to be there, none of them act believably, and the big revelation about what really happened to her mother has nothing to do with anything. Really, it’s just a bunch of revenge ghosts hunting kids because someone stole a watch. They didn’t all take turns stealing accoutrements of the dead; one guy stole one watch, and now the mystic spirits of the Far East have decided that means everyone dies.
It could all be redeemed by good kills and tight shots. As you can tell by my sentiments thus far, it was not. All the kills happen very far from the camera and at obscure angles, and all the scary moments happen just off center in an area of the shot best described as “awkward and uneventful.” If a camera pans up and there’s a ghost just off center but totally visible, it’s not really that scary. A little bit of shrouding and searching makes the viewer more intent on finding the object, which makes it more focused and shocking when they do. This movie seems afraid you might miss something so it just puts ghosts right where you can see them and shrugs about trying to make them actually scare you.
The ghosts do kill people at least, but it’s all too distant to really care about. Aside from a broken leg bit, the movie lacks the up-close brutality that would make you care about what’s happening on the screen. All the shots are too distant and wide, and every time a cool kill does come along, it’s done after the ghost whisks someone away so that their blood can dramatically splatter on glass. There is a bit of supernatural ghosting going on, but mostly people just get their heads smashed open on rocks or stabbed with branches. Pretty basic stuff and nothing that seemed unique to “Japanese suicide revenge ghosts.”
There’s nothing more I can really say about Grave Halloween. It’s a shitty Syfy channel made-for-TV movie where someone made the decision to take every possibly compelling scene and shoot it as though they wanted to present it to a government panel as part of an ongoing experiment on making violence boring. The twists are nonsense, and it quickly becomes a chore to watch. It feels odd to say this, but I feel like it would have come together better as a found footage film. The premise seems obviously tailored for a found footage film, and the movie would greatly benefit from the in-your-face nature of the sub-genre’s style. We’ve all come to expect shallow characters from found footage so the bare bones cast would have at least benefited from the personalization that the first-person view entails. Instead, Grave Halloween is just another stock and predictable snoozefest with all the excitement of a napping contest.