What they captured on camera cannot be explained.
Still relatively early in its existence, YouTube was busy bringing Rebecca Black’s weekend anthem “Friday” into homes around the world and teaching viewers how to do the dance moves to The Lonely Island’s “The Creep," but for millions of horror fans in late 2010 and early 2011, the relatively new video platform was home to one of the first horror movie trailers to go viral in the 2010s. The name of the movie was Grave Encounters, and similar to The Blair Witch Project—its found footage predecessor that went viral in its own grassroots way in the ’90s—the film’s trailer was presented as real footage assembled from a real event that went really wrong. Centered on a paranormal investigative team making a TV show called Grave Encounters, the trailer showed what would happen if supernatural sleuths really did make contact with the other side… with deadly results.
While the trailer is a superb exercise in suspense throughout its two-plus-minute runtime, it’s the punctuation mark at the end that really propels it to its viral status, when a woman in a hospital gown facing the corner of a dark room slowly turns around, revealing deeply sunken black eyes and a mouth that suddenly stretches into a mind-bending scream from beyond the grave. Suffice to say that the image of the screaming woman sticks with you (and haunts you when you try to sleep at night), but beyond scaring millions of viewers on YouTube and shrieking its way across social media platforms, it also helped Grave Encounters finally find a stable home and a distribution plan, something it didn’t have when the trailer was assembled by the writers and directors of the film, Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, aka The Vicious Brothers.
Grave Encounters was the first feature film collaboration for The Vicious Brothers, and while the trailer found breakaway success online, the journey to their first movie together could be traced back years prior to another corner of the web on a filmmaking forum, one that would help forge a strong friendship between two people living hundreds of miles apart.
“Stu grew up in southern California and I grew up in a very small town on the northern tip of Vancouver Island,” Colin recalled. “We actually met during the early years of high school, online, over a filmmaking forum. There's obviously Reddit now, and so forth, but this was essentially that. You had a little website, and he was making these badass short films as a little kid with VFX and top-notch editing and filmmaking. They were impressive! Like, ‘Who is this kid in California making Terminator-like things?’ They were awesome. I just reached out and I think we started talking. Eventually I started sharing work, as early as grade 11, where I was making short films and editing them. I would send Stu rough cuts, and he'd weigh in and vice versa. We finally met in person, and eventually I think we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could write a film, never mind even just making an entire feature. At this point, we were 20 years old or something. We were past high school now, but we were still quite young. We traveled to my hometown and we started writing movies in isolation together. I think Grave Encounters was basically the fourth movie that we wrote together.”
While The Vicious Brothers’ first few scripts featured big ideas that would require big budgets, the stars aligned when they found a perfect location to shoot a low-budget horror film when Colin directed a music video for the rock band Papa Roach at a vacated mental facility on the grounds of the Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam, British Columbia.
“Colin had shot a Papa Roach music video in the building,” Stuart said, “which was a hilarious situation in and of itself. I am actually proud to say that I am an extra in said music video. I'm in there. Blink and you'll miss me, but I'm in there. It's funny, because a majority of that video actually takes place in a long-ass hallway that's in that building that we utilized heavily at the end of Grave Encounters. It's a location that's been shot at a lot near Vancouver, so it's great for music videos and stuff like that. I remember being in the building when Colin was directing that video. When they were down there, I would just go off on my own and kind of look around. The location is such a great location. It's exactly what you see in the film. It just really is that place. I would go and wander around. It kind of sparked the idea as a location.”
Nearly 100 years before it was the filming location for Grave Encounters, the Riverview psychiatric hospital opened in 1913 under the name Essondale Hospital (after one of its founders, Dr. Henry Esson Young). Comprised of multiple buildings (the facility was initially built on 1,000 acres of land, but now comprises 244 acres), Riverview Hospital housed patients being treated for mental illness throughout most of the 1900s and into the 21st century. Once home to thousands of patients, the numbers of those treated at Riverview gradually went down towards the turn of the century due in part to new views on psychiatric treatment and the rise of outpatient care, eventually leaving several buildings on the grounds vacated. The burgeoning Vancouver film scene took notice, with the The X-Files, Supernatural, and Final Destination 2 being just a few of the productions to film at Riverview and capture the location’s authentic hospital setting on camera. By the time Colin and Stuart were at Riverview for the Papa Roach video, multiple parts of the hospital’s interior had taken on a decrepit, foreboding beauty after years of abandonment. It was the perfect location to shoot a low-budget horror movie.
With an ideal setting now within reach, The Vicious Brothers just had to pair it with a clever horror concept that could be executed with a manageable budget. As it turns out, in the golden age of paranormal investigation shows, Colin and Stuart would only have to turn on the TV during writing breaks to get their biggest inspiration.
“We went through a couple different scripts that all ended up eventually being way too big and laughably too ambitious for what we had,” Stuart explained, “Pretty much at that point, we just had nothing. I remember going to an IHOP restaurant with you, Colin, and we had almost been throwing the idea around like a lark. Like, ‘Oh, this would kind of be a funny thing to do,’ and for some reason, we just had this breakfast where it really catalyzed as an idea. It was like, ‘Why don't we just do this? This seems so obvious. No one has done this before. We could parody these ghost hunting shows so perfectly.’ If we shot at the building, it just seemed like a no-brainer. It was the perfect place. It was the ultimate place that you want to see something happen at one of those shows. Those kinds of shows, they were definitely around. We were already big fans.”
“We would watch them when we were stuck,” Colin added. “When we got stuck writing, we would throw on Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, and laugh. I think seeing all those shows and being like, ‘This would be great as found footage. Why hasn't this been done?’ In found footage, you're always looking for the reason of, 'Why the hell don't they stop recording when it's life or death?' But what if a host was so ambitious and so driven to, in a way, capture proof of the paranormal, so that you can bank off of it? I think it lent itself really cleanly to a found footage film. I do remember that IHOP breakfast. It was delicious!”
“The pieces came together so organically before us,” Stuart continued, “that this just seemed like the perfect kind of project that would work for us. High concept, high premise, but we just in theory didn't need much. If anything, more money just wasn't necessary and would probably take away from the grittiness that we were after. It totally would've tainted it. We made the movie with flashlights and crappy night vision cameras. It was so dark in that building when we were making it. I feel like there was a tinge of madness the whole time.”
After completing the screenplay for Grave Encounters with their scary good location and self-aware paranormal concept in mind, Colin and Stuart next had to assemble the cast that would play the members of the fictional paranormal investigative team known as Grave Encounters. With the immeasurable help of producer Shawn Angelski, The Vicious Brothers cast their supernatural sleuths that would enter Riverview (referred to as Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital in the film): Sean Rogerson as Grave Encounters host Lance Preston, Ashleigh Gryzko as investigator Sasha Parker, Mackenzie Gray as psychic/actor Houston Grey, Juan Riedinger as tech wizard Matt White, and Merwin Mondesir as cameraman T.C. Gibson.
Aided by a small but talented crew of friends and local crew members, The Vicious Brothers kicked off principal photography on Grave Encounters, and even though they only had 12 days to film (10 of which would take place at night due to the large number of windows that would let sunlight into the Riverview facility), Colin and Stuart encouraged improvisation on set, including letting the actors take a camera and wander through the dark corridors and empty rooms on their own, infusing the film with a frightening realism.
“We would run each take probably three or four times,” Colin recalled. “It was about finding the frame and the shape of it through experimentation, and letting the actors rip off the script that Stu and I had written. We would run it on book, and we would take it further and further and further away from that. I think Stu would run in and refine it with me. I'd be behind the lens. I had a really weird experience making the movie because I almost felt like a cast member. I was so consistently Merwin's A-cam. People were looking right past me, saying every freakin' line basically. It was really engaging. Once we were done with that angle, then we would record all of the stuff from the actors' cameras, and we would let them cast Merwin, who then is actually holding the bigger camera. Once we would be done with that, we would do the big static cam. I think that was kind of the order.”
"The thing that was nice about just shooting everything and rolling on everything," Stuart said, "and I think we knew this going into it, was that we would be able to find pieces that were truly just raw shit, that the actors had shot off the cuff or whatever, and be able to find moments that were authentically just kind of bad or kind of wonky that we could mix in, that would only help to elevate the sense of realism, which I do think is a quality of Grave Encounters that makes it rise above some of the other found footage films. I think we were always trying to seek a real truth there with some of the footage. Including some of that stuff that was real, I think, does help to give it that edge."
This improvisational nature on set led to some eerily authentic scenes in the film, especially after Lance and the rest of the Grave Encounters team get stuck overnight in the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital and gradually discover that finding proof of the paranormal comes at a costly price (instead of the big payday Lance was hoping for). In the spontaneous spirit of The Blair Witch Project, Colin and Stuart even had some surprises in store for their cast members, including one emotional scene at the top of a staircase when the Grave Encounters team is trying to get to the roof.
“We did cool things on set, too,” Colin said. “When they reached the top staircase, we had our production designer build a wall and wall it off. We didn't show anyone. We didn't tell anyone. We just said, “Merwin, you know how to get out. You saw the exit on the roof. Go!” That was the energy, and we chased them up those steps and got a genuine reaction. We didn't stage anything. We didn't block the scene. We tried to hold onto as in the moment of an approach as possible across the board. Editorially, sometimes that meant not using the A-cam. It meant using the camera that Lance was shooting that's pointed at his feet, and you can only hear the fighting off camera. We just tried anything we could to give it enough of a raw Blair Witch quality that would lend to the believability of the subject matter.”
While The Blair Witch Project served as a major inspiration for Grave Encounters (along with The McPherson Tape), Colin and Stuart deviated from one of the godfathers of the found footage genre when they made the bold decision to actually show what is haunting their film’s characters, not just once, but many times… primarily beginning with the iconic screaming woman from the trailer (a moment that feels on par with actually seeing the Blair Witch). While the decision to actually show the supernatural in the second half of the film was not without its own risks and strayed from the potentially safer “less is more” approach, The Vicious Brothers utilized their visual effects skills to bring their film’s paranormal entities to undead life.
“We went back and forth on the script itself,” Colin reflected. "'Do we show ghosts, or do we oblige by the found footage that's been done already?' The Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity had come out, and obviously in those films you don't see anything, and that's amazing. It's great atmospheric tension. I would say that the cheap seats often leave disappointed that they didn't get to see the ghosts, and that's maybe why in sequels they try to ramp up all that stuff, to satisfy the audience on another level, and maybe dissatisfy certain people. You can't please everyone. Stu and I eventually made the conscious decision, ‘At around the 50-minute mark, let’s show the audience what none of those other movies were brave enough, or stupid enough, to show them. Let's go out swinging here, and give these ghost hunters what they came for. We have to show these freakin' ghosts.’ That was fun. We cast a few friends in those roles as ghosts, too. It was cool.”
“Colin and I grew up as indie filmmakers,” Stuart added, “learning as digital editing and that stuff was just arriving and coming together. We grew up in that tech, so we're both somewhat decently versed in doing 2D comps and whatnot and after-effects, but certainly not professional on any level. Certainly, we knew about the demon face moment that happens in the film, that is sort of the iconic image that people know from Grave Encounters. We had always planned that. I don't think there was discussions of style. It was mostly, ‘What won't look stupid? What can we do here that will hold up decently enough?’”
In addition to the film’s chilling visual effects that are still regularly shared on social media, Grave Encounters also featured an ambitious practical effects scene involving Merwin, a submerged ghost, and a bathtub full of blood in a room that already had bathtubs strewn about the floor before filming even began.
“In the building that we shot, there was no plumbing, so no running water whatsoever,” Colin recalled. “That room was pretty much as it is in the film. It was really a room that had these bathtubs. I'm not sure if it was used for hydrotherapy, which is something that they used to do back in the day. I'm not sure if that was one of the rooms, but the room really had those bathtubs. We just filled that bathtub up with some kind of disgusting concoction of whatever. I think there were coffee grounds in there maybe, to give it that color. We had a stuntwoman actress [Michele Cummins] who came in and was willing to take the dunk. She's got to dunk underneath there, and then she's got to be still. There has to be enough time for the water basically to have no movement.”
“As I recall,” Colin continued, “the cue was me literally knocking with my hand against the side of the bathtub to cue her. When she was underneath in the bathtub, she couldn't hear anything, so I would bang on the bathtub and that was her cue. She was a little bit late when she jumped out. I remember us doing some pretty crazy and time-intensive animation to speed up that element and cut out a few seconds where you could feel that Merwin is waiting for her to erupt out of it. Once he dives in, the cleanup for reset on him was really hard. I actually think there were two takes. I think I fucked the first take up, too. I remember being really nervous operating camera on that.”
“Then Merwin 100 percent dunked into that red water,” Stuart added, “and there's no shower or anything. The poor guy... they were cold, too. We're shooting in Vancouver. The building kind of had rudimentary heating, but it wasn't great. We had a little shower temporary stall, but it was just miserable for Merwin.”
I think he had just enough stuff to finally clean up and do one more take,” Colin said. “That was the one where it still wasn't right, but Stu was able to fix it in post. I think I even have it in the post. He managed to add water exploding out in post, too, that made it feel more violent. Getting that blood all over the ground, too... I think they were cleaning with mops for a few whole days trying to clean that room, honestly.”
For a building with as much history as Riverview, you have to wonder if any hauntings were happening on set during the making of a paranormal movie, and while Colin and Stuart thankfully didn’t encounter any actual demon ghosts dripping blood from the ceiling, they did acknowledge that Riverview came with its own strange vibes.
“It was pretty easy in that building,” reflected Colin. “If we were shooting something on the fourth floor or whatever, and you had to go take a piss, there was one bathroom on the first floor, and you would just kind of have to do "the walk" by yourself. I do remember certainly a few moments being alone and going... on particular one side of the building, I remember… I don't know if ghosts are real. I don't know if places can be haunted myself, personally, but if ever a place was a place that could be haunted, it would be that building.”
“The energy there was very dark,” Stuart added. “You could find yourself in a place that was very thick with a weird, dark energy.”
"The building carries real sadness," Colin agreed. "I feel like, if you let it, if you are open to that, you can pick up on the pain. I do remember a few instances where our AD, Michael Bendner, we'd be on the first floor, and you'd hear footsteps or someone running along the second floor, and he'd be on the radio like, "Is anyone up there? Who's up there? Stop moving around!" There was no one up there. No one was up there. Also, the gag with the window, you close them at night, they're opened in the morning. That's actually something that the building caretaker told us during a location scout. She was like, "I lock these windows all the time, and I come back the next day and they're wide open." Stu and I were just like, "Well, that's going in the movie." Certain things like that, definitely."
“Even one more thing,” Colin continued, “when Merwin gets pushed down the steps, when TC gets pushed down the flight of steps, that was a story that a crew member told us. He shot a lot of X-Files in there. Way back in the day, a crew member fell down a flight of stairs in that building and swore that something pushed him. Stu and I were open to other people's real stories and encounters in that building and incorporating them and finding cool ways to put them in the film itself.”
Following a jam-packed and ambitious 12-day filming schedule, the journey of getting Grave Encounters to the big screen was just beginning. In addition to doing the visual effects for the film, Colin and Stuart also had to edit the final cut from countless hours of footage collected from static cameras and handheld cameras that had been used during the improvisational and scripted scenes.
When the film’s theatrical cut was ready to show to potential distributors, The Vicious Brothers held a test screening in Los Angeles, but they found themselves living in their own horror movie when they discovered at the screening that the film’s foreboding sound design that they had worked so hard at with skilled sound designer Vince Renaud (who did a wonderful job) wasn’t being fully utilized on the version shown on the big screen.
“Our sound engineer, who did a great job, his name is Vince Renaud,” Colin reflected. “We were in his basement sound mixing room for weeks, pushing him to make this atmospheric, droney building. The sound design was such a huge component of it. Stu and I were so bent that week. I really think it adds a lot of the tension underneath, even though you might not notice that it's there. It's like the building is the score of the film. When we screened the movie, you couldn't hear any of that great mixwork, and the 5.1 that created that atmosphere, and also some of the big jump scares in the film, all of the life was sucked out of it on that theatrical screening. I think most buyers in town... I don't think anyone from Blumhouse actually saw the movie, or maybe they did. They would've been a perfect release for this movie. That test screen was so devastating with the sound being so weak. I remember being up in the projection booth with Stu, literally wanting to murder everything because it had been such a whirlwind to get there. It didn't matter how loud you made those speakers, it was not going to have the same impact. There was no subwoofer channel, either. It was brutal.”
Unfortunately, Grave Encounters was left without a home following the test screening. But rather than wait for a distributor to magically come knocking on their door, Colin and Stuart took the proactive action of making their own trailer and releasing it online.
"Eventually, Stu and I were kind of just like in a little bit of limbo in post,” Colin recalled. “We had this movie, and we cut a trailer for it ourselves. Eventually, we were waiting for our film festival premiere. We just decided, 'Fuck it,' and we uploaded the trailer to YouTube. Within two weeks, it was getting millions and millions of views. Suddenly, we got a call saying that Tribeca wanted to not only distribute the film, but premiere it at the festival. We entertained that, and we got that deal to a place that made sense. They ended up giving it a really, really small release. They didn't have the infrastructure as a theatrical company in the U.S. to do what we wanted, what we thought it could have done in that moment.”
“We were really happy with the trailer that Stu and I cut,” Colin continued, “and were ballsy enough to just go, ‘screw it’ and put it online. It really was probably the reason it found a home at all.”
Aided by the trailer's supremely creepy thumbnail of the screaming woman, the Grave Encounters trailer gave the film a viral marketing campaign that spread across social media platforms like a ghostly wildfire, proving that you didn’t need millions of dollars to traditionally advertise a movie in the constantly evolving digital age.
Grave Encounters’ viral status has continued well beyond the film’s initial release in 2011, continuing to create a supernatural buzz into the 2020s. Just try searching Grave Encounters on Twitter and you’ll see that the film’s bold choices and eerie imagery are perhaps more prevalent now than ever before. Interest in the first film led to a sequel, Grave Encounters 2, back in 2012 (written by The Vicious Brothers and directed by John Poliquin), and Colin and Stuart aren’t ruling out a third entry in the franchise.
“We've continued to talk about it,” Stuart said. “We know that people are interested in that. We are certainly not opposed.”
“We did write one,” Colin added, “we wrote a rough draft of this script a long time ago for a third one. I don't think we ever really got it to the shape that we truly loved it. After doing the sequel and it being a really rushed experience... I'm proud of certain aspects of that film, but again, that's the kind of situation where you throw a bunch more money at something and you taint it.”
“Our good friend, John Poliquin, directed it. He had about 20 days probably, but it was a lot more ambitious. Stu and I were heavily involved in overseeing it all. Our post schedule became crippling because the start date of the shoot kept getting pushed. Ultimately, we only had about three months from wrapping to having to deliver the movie. The movie had an astonishing number of visual effects that we didn't have time to work on enough to get them to a place where we were happy. We didn't have enough time to work with a lot of footage. I think it had even more footage than our first movie. Every kid had GoPro cameras and everything.”
“We lost our minds trying to edit that movie and deliver. We literally delivered it on the day that it was due to the distributor. It was just a painful post process. I think if we had another two months, we probably could have really refined that and helped it find its shape in a more natural way. It has a lot of fun. I think it brings some cool ideas to the building. It's a lot of fun to see Sean Rogerson's character in there. I love working with him. He's an awesome guy, an awesome actor, and he's such a big part of the world that we've built. If we did do a third one with the script that we wrote, he's in it.”
Whether or not a third Grave Encounters film ever sees the light of the silver screen, Colin and Stuart have a lot to be proud of when they look back at the making of their first feature film collaboration, a movie that would help open the door to future filmmaking projects for years to come.
"Blair Witch, but on steroids,” Colin said, “that's what Stu and I set out to make, really. We were obviously big fans of The Blair Witch Project. We loved the first Paranormal Activity, and going back even further, the alien abduction found footage movies that came well before that, like The McPherson Tape.”
“I think our film is a very unique set of circumstances," Colin continued, "where you have two really driven, young people, and we're putting all of our energy every day into trying to make our first film. Not knowing anyone in the film business, from other worlds, and having worked together endlessly, and put all of our passion and all of our money... we drained our own bank accounts to make that movie, both of us. Every cent we had went into making that film. It was a real labor of love. We were 23 and 24 years old when we went to camera on that thing, maybe 24 and 25. That energy is there.”
“And finding a great cast... I think we knew we had a movie when we saw Sean Rogerson's tape come in. We were having a really hard time finding our host, our Lance Preston. When he was in Alberta at the time and just sent in a little tape that he made by himself, he didn't have anyone reading opposite him. We just were like, 'That's the guy.' Combining him with Mackenzie and Merwin, and our friend Juan Reidinger, who plays Matt, the tech guy, it was a neat group of characters, as well as Ashley, who plays Sasha. It has all of those archetypes that the audience, they love and they hate. To see them really find themselves in this terrifying situation, there was something genuinely fresh about it, I think, in the moment. Maybe that's why it lives on. It captures that window in time. People have tried to replicate that a lot. Since Grave Encounters, there's been dozens and dozens of horror movies that revolve around ghost hunting gone wrong, but I'm proud of what Stu and I did. We did it. Our passion brought it to life, and it really is a love letter to the genre.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Stuart added. “I just remember going into that building every day when we were shooting, and it was just like kids in a candy store. Just the ability to go and run wild like a bunch of maniacs in this giant building, where we had carte blanche to do whatever we'd like, it was a ton of fun. Working with Colin, we saw so eye-to-eye on every letter of that script that we had written, and every sequence we really saw eye-to-eye. I think we had a vision for it. We just tried to make it as cool as we fucking could, and make it something that we thought that we'd like to watch, and hoped that other people would feel the same."
One look online—whether it’s on Amazon Prime, Twitter, or Pluto TV—confirms that many people still do feel the same. Grave Encounters may not have received the wide releases of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, but it has earned a spot among those found footage titans as a movie that is as creatively ingenious as it is genuinely scary. Grave Encounters is proof that in a digital-aided era when you can learn to do so many things yourself, you don’t need a big studio or a big budget to make a horror movie with a big impact. Sometimes you just need great friends, an independent spirit, and a ghost whose scream is scary enough to be heard across the internet… and a decade into the future.
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