While he is sure there will be many individuals more than happy to waltz across his burial plot, Judge Bill Gibron hopes they will face the same fate as the people responsible for the cemetery salsa in this excellent After Dark terror title.
Our review of The Gravedancers / Wicked Little Things (Blu-Ray), published January 28th, 2011, is also available.
When their pal is killed in a car accident, former college friends Harris (Dominic Purcell, Prison Break), Kira (Josie Maran, Van Helsing), and Sid (Marcus Thomas, Scorched) get together to reminisce and reconnect. After one too many shots and a bottle or three of wine, the trio head out to the cemetery to pay their respects. There, they find an odd sympathy card lying on a gravestone, suggesting that they celebrate their buddy by dancing around the plots. The drunken threesome does just that. A few weeks later, something strange starts happening in each one of their households. Sid is plagued by odd noises and small fires. Kira is attacked and beaten by an unseen force. Even Harris and his wife Allison (Clare Kramer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) are visited by a female spirit who wants to destroy their wedded bliss. After Kira is nearly killed, Sid suggests that all three work with his paranormal investigators, Vincent (Tcheky Karyo, The Core) and Culpepper (Meghan Perry, The Convent). The pair has a plan, but time is definitely running out. The ghosts are getting stronger and they plan on killing off these craven Gravedancers before the next full moon.
There is an old adage in Hollywood horror filmmaking, one that clearly applies to the independent fright feature The Gravedancers. It's a moldy old maxim that goes a little something like this: "You're only as good as your monster." Maybe a better way of saying it is "clever creatures equal cash" or "a bad-ass beast means major macabre." No matter how you spin it, the creature is the key to a successful scare film. If your ghoul is goofy or your ghost all gimmicky and dumb, you'll be guaranteed of giving the fright fan a major motion-picture wedgie. Luckily, The Gravedancers does have some wonderfully effective spooks, the kind of terrifying spectral visages that made Poltergeist and The Evil Dead practically percolate with dread. If this was all this amiable offering from the otherwise mediocre After Dark Horrorfest had to give us, we'd be looking at a single element trying to sell an otherwise average terror title. But outsider auteur Mike Mendez is a student of shivers. Before bringing on the banshees, he creates a wonderfully atmospheric and highly suspenseful showcase with his decisive directorial flair. There are definite moments of unnerving tension in this well-managed movie, scenes where the hairs on the back of your neck are standing at attention and waiting for their fellow fright friends—the goosebumps—to arrive. Luckily, once the fiends appear, the film maintains its eerie integrity.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this narrative is Mendez's desire to create a kind of new or novel horror mythology. In this case, it's the concept of the "Gravedancer's Lament," a poem that purports to celebrate death while actually functioning as a fascinating curse. During the uneasy setup surrounding a funeral and a group of college friends, we worry that this will be another awkward attempt at creating something fresh and original. Indeed, most fright flicks use the concept of forced innovation to tread over the same old shock situations. The Gravedancers does run this risk, but thanks to the compact script from Brad Keene and Chris Skinner, our story never strays too far from the basics. Even when we are introduced to the slightly daffy paranormal investigators, a couple seemingly committed to their own whacked-out agenda, we still sense the film's well-established boundaries. This helps sell the whole vile verse ideal while giving credence to the creepiness all around. With an unknown fright factor at the center of the story, The Gravedancers still gets its harrowed haunting down pat. Even if we doubt the source, we find ourselves reacting to the shudders.
The same thing applies to the ending. Moving directly into Hooper and Spielberg territory with its over-the-top spectral visitations (with just a little Joe Dante tossed in for good measure), the polished premise offered all throughout the film really helps to counteract the spirit surreal appearance. These are some nasty looking entities, mouths motionless in toothy, terrifying grins. They move like rejects from a J-Horror film and resemble Halloween masks gone Hellspawn. After 45 minutes of "who goes there?," their arrival marks a turn in The Gravedancers' dynamic. We go from subtle to spectacular, realistic to outrageous. In the hands of a standard hack filmmaker, someone serving time in a genre effort while waiting for his agent to phone, we'd be stunned by such a shift—and not in a good way. But because Mendez understands fear (he helped helm a documentary on classic creepshows called Masters of Horror) and is proficient in the ways of the wicked, his movie never loses its dread. Thanks to some excellent acting (Dominic Purcell, Josie Marin and Clare Kramer are especially good) and a gifted directorial eye, what could have been unintentionally hilarious instead stays masterfully macabre. Of the seven other offerings from the Horrorfest currently available on DVD, The Gravedancers is definitely one of the best.
In the strictest of technical senses, The Gravedancers looks and sounds very good. Obviously fiddled with in post-production to deepen the green/gray aspects of the overall design (thank you, Saw, for creating that scenic stereotype), the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is colorful and crisp. We do see some slight grain in the night scenes, and there are moments during the daylight where the digital diddling readily exposes itself. But overall, the transfer is terrific, helping maintain the movie's tone and atmosphere. The same goes for the sound. Mastered in a fine Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, the audio here is hiss free and filled with ambience. This is especially true in the many pre-reveal fright sequences when the aural elements must provide the majority of the scares.
As for added content, Lionsgate lets Mendez speak for himself. He is all over this DVD, participating in a full-length audio commentary (with composer Joseph Bishara) and narrating various deleted scenes and F/X featurettes. These are a very informative group of extras, giving us insight into how low-budget movies are made, why big-name actors appear in same, and how the slightest problem can overwhelm an entire production. Mendez is very straightforward throughout, complaining about elements outside his control (the film's opening was shot and added without his consent) and explaining how a lack of money merely demands some imaginative thinking. We get storyboards, a financing trailer (a three-minute look at the idea for the film, meant to stir investor interest), and some interesting anecdotes from producer Lawrence Elmer Fuhrmann Jr. Together, they paint the typical portrait of a labor of love forced through the filter of independent film realities.
Thanks to the last-act appearance of some incredibly creepy ghosts and an overall attention to terror detail, The Gravedancers avoids the massively misguided reputation that almost all the After Dark Horrorfest films suffer from. Instead, this is an excellent fright flick with enough spectral staying power to propel it past the typical homemade horror homage.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-Length Audio Commentary with Director Mike Mendez and Composer Joseph Bishara
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