Thursday Trailer Face-Off! Grave Encounters vs. Apollo 18
Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Grave Encounters vs. Apollo 18, two horror films disguised as the raw footage resulting from adventurous types exploring dangerous, unknown terrain (a mental hospital and the moon, respectively).
Each of these films is couched in a conceit now familiar to horror filmgoers, made popular by The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity and lots of others. This is found footage, the films promise, that documents the untimely demise of some brave young people at the hands of some heretofore unknown force. In Grave Encounters, the young people in question are the host and crew of a made-up TV show by the same name—one of the slew of shows in which “paranormal investigators” go into reportedly haunted houses and use silly electronic equipment to try to prove the existence of ghosts there. (There’s one on SyFy called Ghost Hunters, and another on A&E called Paranormal State, and one on Discovery called Ghost Lab, and a British one called Most Haunted, but we’re guessing this particular iteration is a nod to Canadian series Ghostly Encounters. We learned a lot on Wikipedia about paranormal investigation TV shows for this post!) In Apollo 18, the young(ish) people are astronauts aboard Apollo 18, the real-life last mission to the moon, which we guess was supposed to have been a secret that was later covered up by the government. In both cases, scary monsters—ghosts and aliens, respectively—plague our heroes as they fight for their lives! We’ll give this one to Grave Encounters because it’s more believable that the crew of that kind of TV show could go missing without anyone finding out than it is that the US could have launched a manned space mission without anyone knowing. Wouldn’t the people who live near Kennedy Space Center have noticed that, um, a shuttle took off? Advantage: Grave Encounters
The trouble with this sort of movie is that it can’t star anyone even remotely famous, because it’s harder to suspend your disbelief that it’s “found footage” when, say, Matthew McConaughey is walking around in it. To that end, we’ve never heard of anyone from either movie. Sean Rogerson, who plays the TV host in Ghostly Encounters, and several of his co-stars have had pretty steady TV credits for the last few years. Here are some of the highlights among their credits: “Smalltime Drug Dealer” [sic] and “Rapist” (both Rogerson); “Church Thief,” “Morgue Attendant,” and “Urinal Patron #1” (Juan Riedinger); “Girl in T-shirt” (Ashleigh Gryzko); and “Nigel Dickson,” “Nigel Chan,” and “Nigel Smatter” (all Mackenzie Gray, who apparently just looks like a Nigel). Apollo 18 went in a different direction: its cast isn’t listed on either Wikipedia or IMDb, presumably a smart marketing move by the Weinstein Company, who’s really trying to push the found-footage thing—Bob Weinstein told Entertainment Weekly in February, “We didn’t shoot anything. We found it. Found, baby!” Cute, but we’re giving it to Grave Encounters, because we’re still chuckling about that guy who played so many Nigels. Advantage: Grave Encounters
If the Weinsteins really wanted to maintain the found-footage illusion, they’d have come up with a pseudonym for their director—but they didn’t; it’s Gonzalo López-Gallego, a Spanish filmmaker who’s received some notice at international film festivals, most notably for his 2001 film Nómadas. Grave Encounters was directed by a filmmaking duo who go by The Vicious Brothers, who get a little credit for pulling one over on us—they’re not really brothers! Nope, they’re a pair of 25-year-olds named Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz. They lose the category because this is their debut feature, while Gallego has some experience under his belt. They double-lose the category because, according to their website, “They first met through a filmmaking web forum in 1999 and bonded through their shared love of horror/sci-fi films and a mutual hatred of film school.” Seriously, don’t be that guy. Advantage: Apollo 18
Both of these films take place in locations we, personally, aren’t brave enough to visit. But which is scarier, the moon or a psychiatric hospital? It’s a tough call. On the one hand, if Apollo 18 does, as it promises, explain “the reason we never went back,” that sort of contains the scariness, doesn’t it? Maybe these two dudes died, but all we have to do is not go to the moon again in order to avoid their same fate. And since going to the moon is a really expensive undertaking we haven’t done in decades anyway… problem solved. Psychiatric hospitals are closer to home—most people probably live near one! On the other hand, what you might find on the moon is probably scarier than what you might find in a mental hospital: what’s haunting the Grave Encounters guys is, on some level, human, and therefore at least somewhat predictable. Aliens could be anything! They could do anything! That’s what makes the first hour and a half of Signs pretty scary, before you actually see the doofy little guys. These two considerations have equal weight as far as we’re concerned. Advantage: Draw
Each film pulls out quite a few stops to make it seem like the film is a found-footage documentary. In Grave Encounters, title cards inform us that “Their footage has remained hidden from the public for over six years,” and that we’re now looking at “Actual footage recorded in 2003.” Apollo 18 follows suit with “The following footage has not been altered or enhanced,” as well as a fairly realistic color palette and lensing techniques to simulate a mid-’70s feel. Both trailers also use “facts” to contextualize the footage, like “Officially Apollo 17 was NASA’s final manned mission to the moon… in the years following there was unconfirmed intelligence of an 18th mission.” Grave Encounters has a similar tack, introducing us to the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital: “It is widely considered the most haunted building in North America,” which is sort of hilariously specific. The films are pretty evenly matched, but two factors cinch it for Apollo 18. There’s a brief interjection of “Footage damaged, video/audio unavailable” in its trailer, which is realistic: one irritating thing about found-footage thrillers is when the cameras involved “just happened” to have caught every important dramatic moment. It’s much more likely that some of the good stuff wouldn’t make it onto film. Secondly, Grave Encounters makes use of some “archival footage” purportedly from 1939-1942, but the dude jumping on his bed at 0:22 has facial hair that smacks of a Brooklyn indie-rock kid circa now. In fact, if the footage weren’t so grainy, we’d be absolutely sure we saw that dude with a Negro Modelo in hand on a rooftop last weekend. Advantage: Apollo 18
This is the big one: they’re horror films, so which one looks scarier? Again, they seem pretty evenly matched—we mostly just get glimpses of the ghosts/aliens respectively, which is always a good move in today’s too-gory horror environment. In both films, the scary intruders do damage to the leads’ skin: “HELLO” is carved into someone’s back at 1:23 in Grave Encounters; there’s a scary, spiderlike infection thing at 1:48 in Apollo 18. And there’s one slightly more sustained scary image in each trailer: in Grave Encounters, it’s a ghost girl’s face appearing to sort of melt at 1:50; in Apollo 18, it’s what appears to be a freaky moon corpse (a slain astronaut?) at 2:03. Creepy, both! But we have to give it to Apollo 18 because of what happens when you pause the trailer at 1:50: the makeup on the ghost girl’s face is really obvious. It might’ve escaped our attention any other summer, but this year it immediately made us think of the kids’ little zombie movie in Super 8. It’s still kind of creepy when it melts, though—we’d love to know how they did that! Advantage: Apollo 18
Both of these films look like they’ve got something to add to the found-footage horror genre: each has a believable frame narrative that convincingly explains why this footage would exist in the first place (a little better than, “Uhhh, because we set up a camera in our house”). And, to be honest, we feel a little guilty about our decision, because it seems like Grave Encounters was made with less money than Apollo 18 was, so its efforts are more impressive. But ultimately, it comes down to how the films look: Apollo 18 has a more original aesthetic, because it has to evoke that ’70s feel and, further, that inside-a-spaceship feel. A lot of Grave Encounters seems to take place in that sickly green Nightvision setting, which, honestly, isn’t unique at all. Winner: Apollo 18
GRAVE ENCOUNTERS IS OUT IN THEATERS AUGUST 25. APOLLO 18 COMES OUT SEPTEMBER 2.