By Steve Biodrowski
There is a tradition of great ghost stories dating back to Sheridan LeFanue and M.R. James, in which hapless human characrers are targeted for haunting after having committed transgressions that are slight or, sometimes, even non-existent. The supernatural stands in for the vagaries of fate, the ruthless indifference of random chance, or an arbitrary sense of moral order that allows no appeal for mercy on the grounds of ignorance, remorse, or regret. THE GRAVEDANCERS works squarely in this tradition, depicting the horrifying consquences of a relatively minor indiscretion that stirs up angry, ectoplasmic forces for whom no slight is too slight to warrant full-blown revenge.
The movie sets the scary tone with a nice shock sequence, perhaps slightly reminiscent of SUSPIRIA’s killer opening, featuring a helpless woman bedeviled by forces unseen and unstoppable, which bring about her violent demise. The story then follows a trio of college friends who reunite for the funeral of their former comrad. They make the mistake of taking the advice found on a mysterious sympathy card, a poem suggesting that life is for the living, who should dance on the graves of the dead. Somewhat predictably – but very effectively – this precipitates a trio of hauntings, one for each offender.
Confident that the opening shock has set the audience up to expect more of the same, the move wisely builds its tension slowly and carefully throughout the opening act, first establishing the characters and relationships and then hinting at the presence of unseen ghosts through camera movement and sound effects, before pulling out all the stops in the later portions.
The screenplay does a fine job of depicting former friends awkwardly reuniting after years have changed them and their relationships to each other; it also sets up the inner dramatic tensions that help drive the story, making the horror of the hauntings appear almost like an external manifestation of of their personal fears and concerns (e.g., the married woman, who fears her husband has rekindled a college romance, at first mistakes the ghostly intrusions as evidence of a female stalker).
By grounding the story in this believable context, the film creates a solid foundation that gives the supernatural terror a wonderful sense of the uncanny when it begins to undermine our sense of everyday reality. This sensibility even survives - somewhat - the plot developments of the second act, which include the introduction of some psychic researchers who will provide the necessary know-how to defeat the disembodied antagonists.
As the evil spritual forces begin to manifest themselves visually and physically, the look of the maliciously grinning ghosts is at once distinctive and familiar, conflating a variety of inspirations, including Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH and Disney’s THE HAUNTED MANSION (the ride, not the film). The physical action even echoes moments in EVIL DEAD 2 and ARMY OF DARKNESS - these are not ghosts that simply moan and rattle chains; they come to grips with their victims in concincingly lethal fashion, providing plenty of violent action that gives the film a real visceral kick beyond the hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck horror of the earlier spooky scenes.
Only in the third act does the movie mutate into an out-and-out Hollywood-type effects show, in which believable action and characterization are usurped by the obligation to provide crowd-pleasing thrills. In order to prevent a too-easy solution to the puzzle (which would have robbed the film of its exciting third act), the screenwriters depend on an obligatory plot twist that undermines some of the conviction.
The shift from recognizable reality to genre movie conventions is ameliorated at least somewhat by the cast, who strive to play frightened people, not ass-kicking Hollywood heroes. Although Dominic Purcell's attempt at playing stoicism occasionally comes across as simply stiff, there's something undeniably unnerving about seeing him battered and tossed around the room by a female phantom - built like a linebacker, he hardly resembles the typical victim for this kind of movie, so seeing him overpowered has an extra visual punch. Unfortunately, actress Josie Maran is given little help by the script when it comes to confronting her sadistic supernatural attacker; she lapses into repetetively calling him a "bastard," which soon grows tiresome.
Even if the third act becomes a bit too special effects heavy, creating an atmosphere that feels more fanciful than frightening, THE GRAVEDANCERS works as a creepy nail-biter that combines old-fashioned eerie supernatural tension with more contemporary phsycial horror. Even with only a couple of graphic (and somewhat gratutitous) moments in what is otherwise a PG-style film, director Mike Mendez delivers more than enough horror to satisfy thrill-hungry fans. This film is not disturbing or repugnant in the manner of recent horror efforts like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING; instead, it delivers effective if enjoyable scares for audiences who enjoy horror without the gross-out.
The look of the film's grinning ghosts was inspired by the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, by the "Drop of Water" episode from Mario Bava's horror anthology BLACK SABBATH, and by a nightmare suffered by director Mike Mendes, in which he dreamed of walking up a staircase and turning around to see a monster looming over and grinning down upon him. For the film, he thought the idea of a malevolent force that was "really happy to see you" was more frightening than the traditional grimmacing ghouls.