Annie Ties Up A Win, Encounters Fails To Keep It Simple

My Toronto After Dark reviews start with an eerie short film about possessions that screened with a much anticipated Canadian sequel: Annie and the Dog and Grave Encounters 2.

Let’s start with the short.

Annie And The Dog (DIR. Brian Allan Stewart)

The short film that preceded the much anticipated sequel to Grave Encounters was an impacting one and, most likely, my favourite short film I’ve seen at this year’s Toronto After Dark.

Father Gabrielle (played by Rich Piatkowski) has a mysterious girl tied up in an abandoned barn. He’s convinced that she is possessed and therefore, must perform an exorcism on her. Officer Alex Akbari stands alongside Gabrielle in case Annie lashes out. Annie is played by Perrie Olthius and Alex is played by Farhang Ghajar.

The short mixes humour and franticness successfully making us laugh while, at the same time, making us feel as nervous as its lead characters. Stewart’s script (which he also wrote) never assaults its audience with cheesy humour or makes us feel awkwardly uncomfortable about Annie’s condition. It’s a perfect blend of both mediums.

The film also caught me off guard at the beginning. The intro is silent accompanied with instrumental music as we see Gary and Tank, two cronies played by Gary Miller and Jon Lindop, bring Annie to this isolated area. It’s a scene that suggests the entire short film will be told without a lick of dialogue.

However, we can’t help but wonder to ourselves during this intro why no one is talking. There’s no communication with Gary or Tank as they bring this strange and dangerous creature to seclusion. They don’t even talk on their way to the location. I would think talking would be key to figuring out how to keep a possibly possessed person under control while maintaining your safety.

We then start to wonder how the rest of the film will be. Although silence can tell an equally stimulating story, that silence still has to be motivated. The audience breathes a huge sigh of relief when characters begin to talk and even more so once we figure out the exchanges are both funny and interesting.

Even if it is emulating the situation’s tension, the camerawork begins shaky and proceeds to get more and more unsteady. I was quickly reminded of the technical shabbiness I saw in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which is never a good thing.

That said, what Stewart does shoot well (because, y’know, he was also the film’s cinematographer) are establishing shots. Annie and the Dog has gorgeous snowy exterior shots that will make you wish winter would come faster.

The ending is a shoulder shrug of a conclusion. It wraps everything up but the lead-up promises us something more thrilling and daring. When we see what we expected in the first place, moviegoers can’t help but feel let down.

Flaws aside though, Annie and the Dog is compelling from start to finish with competent performances. It certainly stuck with me after the end credits of the headlining film.

Grave Encounters 2 (DIR. John Poliquin)

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In the sequel to 2011′s viral horror smash, moviegoers find ourselves paired with a group of obnoxious students who take off to a psychiatric hospital in Vancouver to solve the mystery behind the lost footage from Grave Encounters. The friends constantly tell each other, “Don’t go in there!” or, “Don’t go back for the cameras!” I only wish those students could’ve reached outside the movie, pulled director Poliquin as well as The Vicious Brothers (who also co-wrote the first outing) aside, and told them, “Keep this simple, fellas!”

With these found footage movies, keeping things simple is always the best way to go to guarantee eerie results. Take The Blair Witch Project or the Paranormal Activity series, for instance. Small scares and patience behind the camera eventually builds to a grand finale that will have audiences pulling their shirts up over their eyes.

Every now and then, there’s the odd exception like Cloverfield where the creativity is there and the competence amongst the filmmaking team is also present and together, the combination pulls off something on a grander scale while also creeping us out and impressing us.

With Grave Encounters 2, it’s disappointing to see something start out on a right-ish path and then fly off the rails of believability, credibility, and logic. Even if audiences can see past the ruse of the found footage genre, it’s still fun to go along with the ride and buy into the freakiness. However, Poliquin and the Vicious Brothers drop the ball and jump the shark with this installment – or should I say, “jump the wormhole.”

Naysayers of the genre always bring up the fact that they don’t understand why a character would keep on filming something dangerous, life-threatening, or redundant. So, it’s actually a smart move on the film’s part to make the main student cinematographer Trevor (played by Dylan Playfair) a stoner with a short attention span.

He’s shooting for Alex’s documentary (Alex is played by Richard Harmon) but also claims that everything he’s shooting outside the doc is for his own purposes. His purposes: a half-baked (pardon the pun) documentary about life as a student. His doc starts with a title card accompanied by pot leaves and a repeating shot of him blowing copious amounts of smoke at the camera. I buy it.

What I also buy are the connections to real-life bloggers who reviewed the first film for YouTube. Poliquin has used excerpts from various vlog reviews to stabilize that authenticity of wild reactions to Grave Encounters. The results are amusing, well edited, and we can’t wait to see how this meta approach is carried out for the rest of the film.

However, it’s during these introductory scenes where the film needed to pick up its feet. I appreciate character development in a horror film because it turns these people into personas we can either root to succeed or root for them to be killed. But, goodness, the Vicious Brothers want to build this conspiracy from its foundation and take their sweet time doing so. Moviegoers will have to remind themselves that they’re watching a horror movie during the overlong partying scenes at school and the long-winded exchanges between Alex and Grave Encounters producer Jerry Hartfield.

Once the students arrive at the creepy destination to uncover the truth behind the mysterious footage, the scares not only become predictable, but audiences can almost see the forming of each scare materialize in front of them. It’s kind of like figuring out how far apart bolts of lightning are from each other.

For example, the students walk into a room. Jennifer (played by Leanna Lapp) will say something akin to, “What is that?” or, “Don’t go in there.” Boom! There’s our first bolt. Then we count.

One one thousand…

Two one thousand…

Three one thousand…

Four one…

Cue something sparking or something falling over. Each set-up is like that throughout the film to a tee and isn’t scary in the slightest.

I’ll give credit where credit’s due though. Grave Encounters 2 has impressive creature and CGI effects as well as make-up. The only moments that even come close to being a little bit creepy are the claustrophobic quick shots of demonic creatures running or levitating down the halls. But then, it’s arguable that you can get your frights from looking at production stills from the movie or even treating the trailer as a short film and getting your fill from that. It would mean you could skip watching the haphazardly dull movie altogether.

As the movie drifts into the supernatural, we can’t help but throw our hands in the air. Anything that was an iota of horror exits the movie. We’re then subjected to weird images that are there for weirdness sake to emphasize that the building is a never-ending maze.

Sean Rogerson even shows up to reprise his role from the first film. In this second installment, however, he’s dining on rat carcasses and scenery.

To say Grave Encounters 2 is a disappointment would be an understatement. In fact, I better keep my mouth shut and my hands tied behind my back. If I write anymore, I might find myself in Grave Encounters 3

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