One of the 'Eight Films To Die For' (essentially a mini-horror movie festival put on by Lion's Gate and After Dark), The Gravedancers marks the very welcome return of director Mike Mendez who made a bit of a splash with his nasty nun movie The Convent a few years ago. Blending together elements of films like Poltergeist, The Evil Dead and The Haunting Mendez has made a completely enjoyable haunted house-crazy ghost movie that, despite a few flaws and a wacky ending, actually delivers.
When the movie begins, Harris (Dominic Purcell of Prison Break) and his wife Allison (Clare Kramer of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) are attending the funeral of one of Harris' old college friends. After the funeral, they go to a wake where Kira (Josie Maran), Harris' ex-girlfriend, and Sid (Marcus Thomas) are waiting. Allison feels uncomfortable around Kira and so she goes home while the other three go out for a drink. From there, they make their way to a cemetery to send their friend off in their own way, and after drinking some more, Sid finds a strange poem that encourages them to dance on some graves. Under the influence, they do just that. Sid relieves himself on a tombstone while Kira and Harris make out briefly.
The next day, Harris comes home to his wife and it seems to be business as usual until their cat starts freaking out around him. To make matters worse, Allison starts hearing a woman's voice coming from the bedroom. She starts to think that Kira might still hold a torch for her husband and that maybe she's stalking them. When she sees the form of a woman in the bedroom, the cops are called but they can't find anyone in the house. Harris and Allison head over to Kira's house and find her covered in bite marks, her house in shambles. She's taken to the hospital when Harris gets a call from Sid. It seems that Sid has been seeing some strange things around his house too, in the form of little fires and odd poltergeist activity. A pair of paranormal investigators are called in, Vincent (Tcheky Karyo of Kiss Of The Dragon) and Culpepper (Megahn Perry of The Convent), and they figure out that the three friends are being haunted because of what they did that night in the cemetery. What the three friends don't realize is that there was more to the poem than what they read, and that portion tells them that they're either going to be haunted for one full cycle of the moon or until they're laid to rest – whichever comes first.
While the movie borrows bits and pieces from other, better known and more established genre movies, Mendez puts a few nifty creative spins on the material that make the movie much more than a simple homage to what's been done before. He spends the first forty-minutes or so carefully building the story to the point where you might find yourself wondering just where everything is going, and then wisely shifts gears and pulls out all the stops for the second half of the movie. Think of the first half as the creep up the first big hill of a rollercoaster and the second half as the descent – you know it's coming but you can't help but be a little surprised by it anyway.
Central to the film's success is the four main characters. Allison and Harris make a pretty believable couple in that they act realistically and as a married couple would. You can see why Allison doesn't like Kira, which makes their dynamic all the more believable. Kira herself is an interesting, if underdeveloped character. We don't know much about her but it's obvious that she and Harris had a past together in college before Allison was in the picture. Sid is more or less there for some light comic relief, and as such is the least interesting of the bunch. The two paranormal investigators add some fun to the mortal cast, as they try and help these unwitting victims out while simultaneously gathering evidence for their research. Their interaction with the spectral members of the cast is interesting, and made all the more horrific by a couple of disturbing set pieces (let it suffice to say that what happens to Kira is fairly settling) and some great looking ghost effects. While Mendez plays the jump scare card a few times he doesn't over use it and alongside a few effective 'monster pops out and scares you' moments there's also a nice sense of dread, that sort of slow and creeping horror that just accentuates things with a very sinister tone. The ending goes a little overboard with its manifestation scenes and effects but in keeping with the film's spirit it isn't completely inappropriate any more than the ending from Poltergeist is.
The Gravedancers has been given an intentionally grimy looking color scheme. This is not a colorful film, most of the wardrobe, sets and locations are grey, brown and drab looking. In the context of the story, this works fine and Lion's Gate's 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer does justice to the bleak looking visuals. Detail is fine in both the foreground and the background of the picture and there are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts. Some mild edge enhancement is present as is some mild aliasing but these don't overpower things and are little more than a minor annoyance. For the most part, the movie looks fine.
Audio options are supplied in both Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, English language only, with optional subtitles provided in English and Spanish and with an English closed captioning option provided for the feature only.
If you've got the hardware to handle it, definitely check out the 5.1 mix on this disc as it adds a lot more depth and a lot more atmosphere to a few important scenes in the film. The 2.0 mix is strong enough on its own but the 5.1 uses the rears to enhance the jump scares quite a bit and to spread out the mix across the entire room. Bass response is strong and tight and dialogue is consistently clear and easy to follow. The score sounds quite good and the effects are mixed into the film nicely. Nothing to complain about here, this mix is solid all the way through.
The main supplement is an audio commentary track with director Mike Mendez and composer Joseph Bishara. They talk a fair bit about the cemetery where they shot some of the footage, and why they shot there, in North Carolina, because the cemetery had the right atmosphere and they thought they could get away without being organized by the union. This didn't work out and they got shut down. Mendez is fairly down on the first part of the movie but seems to appreciate the later part of the film more, talking about how a pair of nice ladies lent them the house to shoot in and how it was difficult to find the right sort of house in the state and how much of the film was shot on a very low budget and on a very rushed schedule. He talks about the differences between shooting in the right location versus building a set and how he chose to opt for location shooting simply to save money. Mendez dominates the talk, though Bishara chimes in now and then and adds his two cents to the talk. There's barely a second of dead air here, Mendez has a lot to say about the movie and how it was made and in all honesty, this is an excellent commentary. It covers everything you'd want to know in quite a bit of detail without going too highbrow and taking the fun out of the movie. If you were at all impressed by the picture, this track is completely worth listening to.
Up next are two documentaries, the first of which is a making of featurette entitled A Grave Undertaking. This is a basic, fourteen minute, making of documentary that features plenty of interesting behind the scenes footage and interviews with all of the key cast and crewmembers, many of whom emphasize to the viewer that it is a bad idea to dance on graves and party in cemeteries. This is a decent look at the making of the movie with a nice sense of humor to it. Mike Mendez supplies an optional commentary track over this segment. The second documentary, Making The Ghosts, runs for thirteen minutes and focuses in on how the evil spirits who haunt the character in the film were created. This was put together by splicing in some behind the scenes footage and production photos of the effects as they were being assembled, with Mendez narrating the piece and explaining to us how it was all done. Interesting stuff.
Also included on this disc is a selection of deleted scenes (eleven and a half minutes in total), available with or without an optional commentary from director Mike Mendez which explains why these scenes were excised from the final cut of the film. None of these would have added much to the movie or changed a whole lot but some of them are interesting and/or quirky, such as the piece where the two paranormal investigators argue with one another.
Rounding out the extra features on this release are trailers for the feature (with commentary from Mendez!) and for other films in the Eight Films To Die For series, a storyboard gallery, animated menus and chapter stops.
The Gravedancers is a refreshingly fun horror film with some genuine scares and a lot of eerie, creepy atmosphere. The ending is a little hokey but the movie is a blast regardless and horror movie fans should eat this one up. Lion's Gate has done a surprisingly good job on this release, adding a lot of extra value with some interesting and informative supplements and by presenting the movie in with excellent audio and video quality. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.