Just looking at the plot synopsis for this movie should be enough to tip off most people that The Gravedancers is no masterpiece. Seriously, would you pick up this movie? “Distraught by the funeral of an old friend, Harris, Kira and Sid make their way to his grave to drink and pay their final respects. A deadly curse is unleashed when Sid unwittingly reads a mysterious inscription and the friends dance on three graves. A female pianist and axe murderer haunts Harrir, Kira is haunted by a ruthless rapist and Sid a child pyromaniac.”
Warning signs abound: the slightly awkward and unlikely selection of names for the friends signals an uninspired writer who’s trying too hard; the premise that, even when drunk, three people in mourning would go and dance on three separate gravestones is laughable; and the selection of ghosts is just ridiculous – there’s obviously too much being shoved into one movie, and the presence of a rapist ghost in a film with this sort of low budget should set many, very loud alarm bells ringing.
However, any horror fan will tell you that sometimes even the least promising films turn out to be great. The Gravedancers was included in the 8 Films To Die For Horrorfest 2006, alongside The Hamiltons, which was secretly fantastic (though if you’re planning to watch it, don’t read anything about it beforehand: just go in blind. Trust me) so I figured there was just a glimmer of hope that it’d turn out okay. Besides, it starred Dominic Purcell, who played a charisma-barren Dracula in Blade: Trinity, and Clare Kramer, who played Glory in season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so there was at least some pedigree involved.
My admittedly small and fragile hopes were dashed early on. The first scene features a character who has no relevance to anything and will in fact never be seen or mentioned again getting attacked and eventually hanged by some invisible entity, after which the action moves on a year. To some completely different characters in completely different circumstances. This kind of structure has become something of a pet peeve because it’s so over-used in horror movies: the first scene will feature some completely disposable characters getting killed by the movie’s monster, just to set up the fact that people are going to die in this film, but usually these disposable people are nominally related to the main cast. Not so in The Gravedancers. It’s just a random occurrence, just tacked on to kill two minutes.
The next scene introduces the characters we’re supposed to be interested in. There’s Harris, his wife Allison, and his old college friends Kira and Sid, with whom his wife doesn’t get along (because she suspects, correctly, that there’s sexual tension between Harris and Kira, and because Sid is a cretin). Their friend recently died in a car accident, and so, after getting drunk, they decide to go back to the graveyard to send him off properly. Allison wisely leaves them to it, so Harris and Kira get a bit touchy-feely, and then idiot Sid finds a mysterious card left on their friend’s grave. It contains some nonsense doggerel that says life’s for the living, and that they should dance on the graves of the dead … so they do. It really doesn’t make sense, and isn’t how anyone would really act, plus, even more irritatingly, it’s a really complicated way of setting up a haunting that could have been done in a much more logical and sensible way. Seriously, audiences are used to stories about ghosts now. This kind of faffing around is totally unnecessary and faintly embarrassing. It doesn’t help that The Gravedancers sounds like it was originally intended to be one of those stories in which a bunch of stupid teenagers do something stupid and are punished for it – only somewhere along the line, the main characters were turned into responsible adults in their mid-30s, which makes their utterly moronic actions even more difficult to fathom.
So they dance on the graves, and then go home. Two days later (again, noted onscreen, because the screenwriter couldn’t figure out how to convey a realistic timescale otherwise) everyone’s frightened by all the weird things that have been happening. Showing rather than telling might have been effective here, because what we actually see is Allison freaking out over, um, nothing, other than that the doors in the house are sometimes swinging shut by themselves, and Harris ineffectually setting up a security lock.
I promise I won’t talk about every scene in the film in this much detail, but really, this bit sums up the whole thing for me. The camera follows Harris as he inserts a screw into the wall beside the door, then steps outside. While he’s not looking, the door silently closes itself. He looks a bit confused, but steps inside and affixes another screw to the wall. He then precariously balances the control panel for an alarm system on the two screws, and stands back proudly. Allison asks him how the alarm is coming along, and he announces that “It’s finished.” Clearly, it isn’t, because we’ve just watched him install a prop control panel, which is wired into nothing and is also not actually screwed onto the wall properly, since it’s just hanging there, but apparently, that means it’s finished. There follows a scene where doors, um, open and close themselves, and the camera tries to do an Evil Dead style pan through the house, showing, on the way, that there is neither control panel nor screws still in place beside the door.
It utterly blows my mind that someone could film that scene, edit it together, insert it into their movie, and call it good. Seriously? Did no-one pay any attention at all during any point in the production? Did Dominic Purcell not turn round and say “Hang on, I’ve not installed anything here, this doesn’t make any sense”? And how come no-one, at any point, realised that this was a totally unnecessary scene that told us nothing about the story or the characters (aside from “don’t let Harris do any DIY”) and that it might have been more useful to show us some of the hauntings that necessitated the installation of an alarm system in the first place? That banging noise you’re hearing right now is my head hitting the wall over and over again. I know that this is a minor point to pick out of a 99-minute movie, but it just showcases exactly how slapdash and amateurish this film is.
Urgh. Anyway, next, Harris and Allison discover that Kira has been attacked by someone – or something! – in her own home, and there’s some truly dreadful dialogue to establish that she’s going to be kept in the hospital for the time being. I’m glad that they didn’t try to be more graphic about the rape scenes, but the fact that Kira’s been raped and almost killed is treated almost like a joke, which is bad enough. (Her line about having “a new man in [her] life” made me want to spit. Newsflash: spectral rapist-murderers aren’t potential boyfriends.) It seems almost as though the actress playing Kira quit halfway through, since she’s barely in most of the film, which makes the baffling haunting of Allison, when she didn’t go to the graveyard, even more confusing – why didn’t they just write Kira out entirely? Again, though, I’m expecting some kind of logical thought to have been involved with the production, which is silly of me.
Moving on, it turns out that Sid has been plagued by the supernatural, too, and has called in some paranormal investigators. Amusingly, they’ve got the hump with him because they’ve been there 10 hours and there’s been no paranormal activity. They must be the most impatient investigators ever – surely most ghosts don’t show up immediately? Things just get worse from there. The investigators figure out that the dancing was what angered the ghosts – and that, as luck would have it, the three idiots danced in the part of the graveyard reserved for undesireables – and that the hauntings will continue for one full month, or until the hauntees are dead. To break the curse, they suggest that the graves will have to be dug up and re-consecrated (because grave-robbing is totally more respectful than dancing?) and it all goes wrong, because everyone involved in this film is a cretin. There’s one sequence that was almost scary featuring a rubber mask seen in the dark, but then they turn the lights on and it stops being creepy and starts looking like a Pound Shop Halloween costume, an effect not improved by the fact that they then use the same mask for the other two ghosts, despite the fact that none of that makes any sense. We’re shown the backstories of the three evil spirits, to which completely illogical film effects have been applied, but then the ghost turn up looking nothing like the people they’re supposed to be.
And then there’s a bit where a scary fence closes in on them.
The most I could say for this movie is that they appear to have shot it on actual film, which is good, and the cinematography isn’t disastrous. It’s just the script. And the acting. And the direction. And the plot. The sound’s crap, too, though whether that’s a problem with the DVD transfer or the film itself I’m not sure. For most of the film, the sound effects are louder than the dialogue, making it difficult to hear what anyone’s saying (and there are no subtitles) though there’s one scene in which someone speaks and the actors are visibly not moving their mouths. But expecting the filmmakers to care about sound synching, by that point, was beyond me.
On the plus side, the DVD’s shiny on one side and could be used as an impromptu bird-scarer.