Friday, October 1, 2010

The Gravedancers (USA, 2006)

"I’m not going anywhere unless something is chasing me."
Sid Vance

The Gravedancers, written by Chris Skinner and Brad Keene (the latter who went on to help scribe The Grudge 3 [2009 / trailer] and From Within [2008 / trailer]), is the third and inexplicitly to-date last horror film by the oddly under-appreciated director Mike Mendez, a more-than-competent and visually creative director who previously brought us the over-the-top and incongruously unsatisfying but still interesting bloodbath Real Killers (1996) and the flawed but highly appealing and absolutely hilarious, over-the-top comic bloodbath The Convent (2000 / trailer). This time around, Mendez obviously decided to try something new and dumped most of the blood and guts in favor of (Good!) a mostly believable storyline with slowly increasing horror and good old fashion scares that all build towards (Bad!) an over-the-top special effects extravaganza and thus only partially satisfying ending. Still, up until where Mendez pulls out the CGI stops and the big head pops up and the viewers start making raspberries, The Gravedancers is some scary shit—too bad about the crappy ending, though the last lines of dialogue are funny.
Three old college friends—Harris (an unbelievably stiff Dominic Purcell, also seen in Blood Creek [2009 / trailer], Primeval [2007 / trailer] and Blade: Trinity [2004 / trailer]), the sexy Kira (Josie Maran, seen previously somewhere in the unbearable filmic disaster Van Helsing [2004 / trailer]) and Sid (Marcus Thomas of Drowning Mona [2000 / trailer], who has most of the good lines)—re-gather at the funeral of their old college buddy, dead of car accident. But this ain’t no Big Chill (1983 / trailer), so instead of moping about and talking boring shit, that very night they break into the cemetery where their pal is buried to get drunk at his grave. Discovering a card that holds a verse they assume to be a call for the celebration of life, they follow the verse’s suggestion and proceed to drunkenly dance across the graves in one last celebration with their dead friend. The following day, they have more than just hangovers to deal with: Harris and his delectable wife Allison (Clare Kramer, a former regular on Buffy as Glory, the vain hell-goddess) suffer odd sounds and bumps in the night, Sid has flaming footprints walking across his living-room floor, and Kira is being sexually assaulted and having the shit beaten out of her by an invisible assailant. They enlist the help of the pair of paranormal investigators Vincent (Tchéky Karyo of Crying Freeman [1995 / trailer], Kiss of the Dragon [2001 / trailer] and the ridiculous but fun flop The Core [2003 / trailer]) and Frances Culpepper (Megahn Perry, the hot goth in The Convent, looking like a thinner, bonkable Velma from the Scooby Doo cartoons) to find out what’s up, and soon learn that the verse they followed was actually an ancient curse that has called up the ghosts of the dead whose graves they danced upon—a female axe murderess, a child pyromaniac and a sadistic rapist—and that by the next full moon the vengeful ghosts will reach their full power and kill them. Is there any hope for them? Well, yes, there is—but an effective plot-twist proves to be a hamper to their safety, and on the final night all six find themselves imprisoned in the paranormal institute as the homicidal ghosts pull out the stops…

"You just can't find good paranormal help, these days."
Sid Vance

As with his earlier two films, The Gravedancers also opens with a violent scene, this time around of a woman violently hung to death by an unseen assailant, but unlike in Mendez’s earlier films, the violence is hardly over-the-top and it is not overlain with some now-iconic pop song (in Real Killers, it was Iron Butterfly’s classic In-A-Godda-Da-Vida, in The Convent, Leslie Gore’s You Don’t Own Me). But then, according to imdb, Mendez didn’t direct the scene, although it does feature his wife Oakley Stevenson. Supposedly, the intro scene was added (and directed) by the producer Al Corley at the insistence of the sales company, who claimed viewers “gotta know it’s a horror viewer”. True or not, the scene is neither essential nor does it harm the film, but is nonetheless effective in foretelling the terror to come. The lead-up to their dancing on the graves is indeed believable, and one could easily imagine doing it oneself—particularly after a few drinks too many. The slow build-up at the home of Harris and Allison is effective due to its mundanity, as is the resulting marital conflict. The first true scare following the dread felt at the discovery of Kira at her home is Allison’s vision at the hospital—it is the stuff that makes a good ghost story, as is a later bedroom scene.
As mentioned, The Gravedancers loses its steam towards the end even as the action of the film substantially increases in explosiveness. For whatever reason, Mendez and his scriptwriters decide to eschew the effective dread and horror that they create the first two thirds for a satirically excessive special-effects spectacular. True, the deaths are hard and horrific enough, and the possessed axe-wielding corpse is the bee’s knees, but the big head and grasping hand are simply too much and seriously detract from the film, mainly because all the laughter they instigate totally destroys all the priorly built tension. True, Mendez handles the events with a sure directorial eye, but the film would have been much more satisfying as a whole (and not have ended with a laughing audience) had it remained a traditional and scary ghost story instead of devolving into high camp. But flawed or not, The Gravedancers delivers more scares than laughs, and as such is fine viewing for a dark night alone at home…
One question that the film can't help but raise, however, is the following: Today, in year 2010, in view of his three horror films to date—three between 1996 and 2006, all of which have their own merits, even if one only has stylistic verve—why doesn’t Mendez have a bigger career? Seriously, if Rob Zombie can make it mainstream after only two flicks of variable quality, why hasn’t Hollywood called Mendez yet? Ya hear, Hollywood? Get yer head out of your ass and give the guy a call—he lives in Pasadena, fer Christ’s sake....

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