Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #543
Number of Views: One
Release Date: July 15, 2006 (Fantasia Film Festival)
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 99 minutes
Director: Mike Mendez
Producers: Jonathan Dana, Brent Emery, Mark Morgan, Jonas Hudson
Screenplay: Brad Keene, Chris Skinner
Special Effects: Nikki Carbonetta, Rebecca Wachtel
Cinematography: David A. Armstrong
Score: Joseph Bishara
Editing: Mike Mendez
Studio: Code Entertainment
Distributor: After Dark Films, Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Stars: Dominic Purcell, Clare Kramer, Josie Maran, Marcus Thomas, Tchéky Karyo, Megahn Perry, Martha Holland, Oakley Stevenson, Samantha MacIvor
Suggested Audio Candy
Joseph Bishara “The Gravedancers”
I hear that dancing is great for the soul. Indeed there are establishments built for such joyous occasions. At weekends, we all flock to nightclubs intent on releasing the stress of a hard week’s work and express ourselves through dance. Many of us look ridiculous but we take comfort from the fact that we are surrounded by others who look just as ridiculous and nobody bats an eyelid. To assist us further, alcohol is provided (at an extortionate price of course) to help relieve us of our inhibitions and give us the confidence boost we require to bust some moves. However, there are places far less suited to gyrating those hips and one such domain is the cemetery. Should we elect to dance here then, chances are, we will rile the undead. Moreover, we may just provoke the wrath of a malevolent spirit or three.
“O joyful, ‘O delighted, ‘O fortunate one. Weep no more, this departed son. Life’s for the living, not the dead. Forget tomorrow, live now instead. This night you breathe, while they cannot. So dance ye soul on their resting spot. Read these words, sound thy voice. Revel and sing! Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!”
College buddies Sid (Marcus Thomas), Kira (Josie Maran), and Harris (Dominic Purcell) know precisely what I’m talking about. Mourning the untimely death of their childhood friend after a tragic car accident, they decide to break into the Crescent View Cemetery and give him their own kind of send-off, one he would likely appreciate more than the customary morose funeral proceedings. With a mysterious black envelope rested against a headstone containing a poem that suggests expression through dance and alcohol acting as the great enabler, they begin shuffling across the top soil, opening one helluva casket of worms in the process. Turns out that folk can be decidedly cranky after being waken prematurely from their eternal sleep, particularly the trio of restless spirits they have unwittingly aggravated.
For Harris’s wife Allison (Clare Kramer), mere association places her in the danger zone as the bumps in the night start playing out courtesy of our three vengeful spooks. His is a piano playing axe murderer, Sid has alerted the attention of a child pyromaniac and the hapless Kira has drawn the shortest straw of all, becoming public enemy number one for a sadistic serial killer with a penchant for raping his victims. Their punishment for crimes against disco are a full lunar cycle of haunting and, while it starts with the usual creaks, groans and disembodied voices, it isn’t long before their lives are placed in mortal peril. Enter a pair of paranormal investigators, Vincent (Tchéky Karyo) and Culpepper (Megahn Perry), who attempt to help them reverse the curse before things grow really ugly.
The Gravedancers is the fourth full-length feature from Los Angeles-born director Mike Mendez and provides further proof that he knows exactly how to stretch a dollar. Made for a paltry $1m, it boasts the production values of a studio feature twice that budget and that alone is reason to dance a jig. That said, it is at its most effective during the early exchanges before we or the main protagonists are aware of the precise threat. There’s an eerily Gothic feel to the opening act with Mendez using his lens to set his audience on edge. Granted, this consists of the usual piano playing of its own accord, doors opening slowly to reveal darkened recesses, and what’s that spooning me while I sleep if my wife is in the bathroom taking a dump, but he milks these moments for all that they’re worth and builds an unsettling atmosphere.
This tone is compromised slightly during the second act when things take a turn for the Insidious courtesy of our daffy ghostbusting pair. Here, Mendez lets the spirits soar and we get to see them dance from the shadows. The results are a mixed bag, anyone born and bred on J-horror may find the demons a tad underwhelming, but their bulging eyes and demented grins lend a certain je ne sais pas that makes them less than hospitable. While there is a dash of humor introduced to the events of the second act, goosebumps are still only a well-orchestrated jump scare away. However, The Gravedancers has every intention of closing with a bang and Mendez certainly can’t be accused of holding back when allowing his freaks off the leash.
There are shades of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners and William Malone’s House on Haunted Hill in the final spectral crescendo and, while CGI is never a particularly welcome inclusion where I am concerned, it has to be said that every last red cent of that $1m budget is on exhibit and somehow he manages to hold things together without veering too far towards the ridiculous. Granted, scares have long since been substituted for spectacle by this point, but it’s kind of fitting given that all cards have now been played.
The Gravedancers is no classic. What it is however is never less than enjoyable and offers further proof of what an astute filmmaker Mendez is. While the likes of Big Ass Spider! and Lavalantula appear to suggest a move towards Roger Corman territory, it would be great to see what he could achieve with a larger kitty at his disposal as he is anything but wasteful when it comes to resources. That said, I would personally have been interested to have seen the $1m budget here halved as the most important thing is that he understands what makes horror work and could achieve that without the need for bells and whistles. Just like a ghost train, there are plenty of thrills and spills here to keep the tracks greased. However, it’s the quieter moments as we approach the first darkened bends that say the most.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: There is more emphasis here on grotesque imagery than gushing grue but the practical effects from Nikki Carbonetta and Rebecca Wachtel are excellent, given the budgetary constraints and one particularly mean-spirited throat slice had me positively squealing with sick delight.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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