The Gravedancers

Dir. Mike Mendez

When their friend dies in a car accident, Harris (Dominic Purcell), Kira (Josie Maran) and Sid (Marcus Thomas), three old college friends, reunite at his funeral. They decide to catch up and give their friend a fitting send off; so after the funeral they head back to the cemetery with lots of wine, good intentions and high spirits. When they discover a strange poem on an anonymous sympathy card, urging them to celebrate life and dance on the graves of the dead, they do so. A few days later the three are terrorised by the ghosts of the people whose graves they danced upon. Desperate, the trio turn to a paranormal investigator to help them break the curse and save their souls…

Director Mike Mendez moves away from the zany comedic aspects of his earlier shocker The Convent, to craft a genuinely dark and thrilling film. After a spectacularly intense and nerve-rattling opening in which a young woman is brutally murdered by an unseen force (recalling the grisly opening scenes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria) the film takes its time to establish characters and story in the moodiest way possible. At first they think it is just a series of bizarre coincidences: Alison (Clare Kramer) even suspects that Kira, Harris’ ex, is stalking her and hiding in the house to try and drive her away from Harris. The sense of paranoia and warped perspective is nicely realised. Mendez manoeuvres his camera stealthily throughout proceedings like the waft of an eerie breeze. It prowls along the floor, up stairs, peers around doors and walls, over the shoulders of actors and generally sets the viewer on edge.

The film’s look belies its low budget and the array of special effects on display are masterfully handled: even the nightmarishly large disembodied head that plunges after the survivors as they make their frantic getaway doesn’t seem that ridiculous in the context of the story. The first act concentrates on the characters’ growing awareness of their predicament and Mendez handles this with a slow-burn approach, racking up the tension and jolting the nerves every now and again. This dark atmosphere, bloated with dread and an unsettling stillness, is maintained until about two thirds of the way through and then Mendez lets rip with a full-on assault of shocks, blood, genuinely menacing ghosts and a good old fashioned haunted house finale.

The ghosts, when they are finally revealed in all their grisly glory are a sickeningly gruesome lot: an axe-wielding murderer, a disturbed pyromaniac, and a sadistic sex offender. The chilling visage of each of these spectral fiends is reminiscent of the ghoulish medium in the Drop of Water segment of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath anthology: all wide toothy grins and bulging eyes.

There is a distinct touch of the gothic about The Gravedancers. It harks back to a certain era of horror cinema without seeming contrived. A number of scenes featuring Harris and Alison being menaced in their own home deploy that old faithful gothic-horror stalwart of the piano that plays spooky music until someone walks into the room and then it stops. The film is peppered with moments of doors slowly opening into darkened rooms; the camera hanging back and hovering cautiously as though anticipating something jumping out at us.

The music and sound effects also work to enhance the creepiness, every little creak or rumble is designed to set the audience on edge. Of course, as mentioned, the film isn’t all quiet eeriness and foreboding: as events rush towards the climax and the special effects are given more screen-time, The Gravedancers begins to resemble a jolting ghost-train ride – exciting, a little unsettling but never anything short of fun. While it doesn’t display the bawdy humour of The Convent, the film still retains a kind of irreverent humour akin to the likes of Drag Me To Hell or The Frighteners.

One of the stand-out scenes unfolds in the hospital where Kira is recuperating after her attack. As Alison wanders through the empty corridors waiting for Harris, she finds a body on a stretcher covered in a white sheet. As she cautiously approaches, the sheet becomes saturated with copious amounts of blood, as whatever is under the sheet haemorrhages in a highly grotesque fashion. As she turns to call for help, the body sits up and what follows is brief but shocking.

Another taut and frenzied moment occurs when Kira is attacked by some invisible force in her hospital room and an innocent nurse is dragged into the fracas with bloody consequences. As Alison, Clare Kramer (hell-goddess Glory from series 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) gives one of the best performances in the film. Also worth mentioning is Megahn Perry as Frances, one of the paranormal investigators. She was also one of the standout performers in Mendez’s earlier film The Convent, and she exudes a similar droll wit here, too.

The Gravedancers is a well oiled thrill ride. When it comes to delivering goosebumps and jolts, Mendez knows how to deliver. The film was unsurprisingly one of the featured titles in the 8 Films to Die For at the After Dark Horrorfest in 2006, alongside the likes of The Abandoned and Penny Dreadful. A good old fashioned supernatural chiller.

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