By Jerry Chandler
Back in 2006, a wonderfully conceived gimmick was used to try and create an event feeling around seeing horror movies in the theaters. This was the After Dark Horrorfest (A.K.A. 8 Films to Die For) and its collection of eight horror films that had not yet seen wide release in theaters in the United States. The promotional hook was that these films were being screened by the After Dark Horrorfest after proving themselves too intense and terrifying for conventional studio and distributor release. If you wanted to see them in the theaters, you had to get to a participating theater in your area and pay for that night or weekend’s slate of films.
The first After Dark Horrorfest was successful enough, and there would be several annual After Dark Horrorfests after it. However, the truth about their offerings was that they were somewhat hit or miss. A few of the films were pretty damned good, but most of the first eight films shown were just enjoyable if forgettable horror films. But out of that first year’s offerings, one of the two films that stood out and above the rest by quite some measure was the story of three evil, angry, and vengeful ghosts, Gravedancers.
The movie opens up by showing us a woman seemingly alone in the dark and terrified by… something… in the room with her. We never see the thing attacking her, but it’s violent, unrelenting, and obviously paranormal. She’s thrown around like a ragdoll before being sent flying over the railing of the home’s staircase as a cord whips out of the darkness and wraps itself around her throat. It holds her in place, and we see her hang as the life leaves her body. We’re not sure yet what’s going on, but the movie opens with a bang.
The story moves to a reception after a funeral. The death of an old friend has brought a number of people together who haven’t seen each other in years. Three of these people who haven’t seen each other for some time now are former college friends Sid (Marcus Thomas), Kira (Josie Maran), and Harris (Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, and Prison Break’s Dominic Purcell). Sid avoided the funeral itself, but he talks the others into joining him in a late-night visit to the grave of their dead friend to pay some more private respects. A part of his convincing them involves the promise of no small amount of drinking, so they’re not making this visit while in the best frame of mind.
The trio says their goodbyes to their deceased friend, we learn a few things about their past relationships, and the drinking continues. As the three of them explore the cemetery around their friend’s grave, Sid finds an unusual looking black envelope tucked away behind the flowers at the grave. When he opens it, it has a poem written on a card. The poem urges those who read it (which Sid drunkenly does aloud) to be joyful and to dance on the graves of those who have passed before them. As they make their way through the cemetery, they finally decide to do just that before parting ways and going back to their lives.
A short amount of time passes and Harris and his wife Allison (Clare Kramer) begin to become alarmed by the sounds of an intruder in their home at night. For Allison, this gets worse when she sees a woman in their home. When she confronts Harris about what she’s seen, she learns for the first time that he saw Kira, an ex of his and one time partial stalker, at the funeral. She becomes convinced that Kira is once again stalking them after having spent time with Harris after the funeral. Harris blows off her concerns that it’s Kira, but he begins to install better home security for better peace of mind for both of them. But the intrusions only seem to get worse.
Allison is determined to confront Kira, so Harris takes her to where Allison lives. Once there, they find Allison battered and in need of medical assistance. She has bruises, scratches, and bite marks on her body that make it look like she’s been sexually assaulted. They rule her out as the source of their odd visitations.
In the meantime, Sid gets in touch with them and tells them to come over to his place as soon as they can. Once there they meet Vincent Cochet (Tchéky Karyo) and Frances Culpepper (Megahn Perry), paranormal investigators Sid contacted for help when odd things began to happen in his home. Introductions are made and Vincent and Francis begin to interview Harris and Allison. They determine that the timeline for the unusual events happening to them is identical to the timeline for Sid’s paranormal activities. They also learn from Harris more details about the night the trio of friends were together than Sid had told them.
Harris describes the activities of the night, including the discovery of the card and the dancing on the graves. Vincent and Francis immediately become concerned; explaining that what they found, read, and did may have been a form of an old curse that starts under the full moon and concludes in the death of the cursed by the next full moon. The interview is interrupted by a ghostly presence that leaves flaming footprints as it passes. They convince the friends to take them back to the cemetery and they learn the disturbing facts behind the three ghosts that are now haunting them. From there the film speeds to its conclusion.
Gravedancers was, as I noted before, probably one of the best if not the best films to come out of the first After Dark Horrorfest. It’s a nicely paced ghost story with some good atmosphere. The tension and the scares are built up well, and even some of the jump scares in the film are cleverly constructed and retain some of their effectiveness over repeated viewings long after less well done ones in other films do. The practical FX work in the film is excellently done, it serves as a fine showcase of the early work of artists who went on to do projects like The Pirates of the Caribbean films, Hellboy, The Vampire Diaries, and Stranger Things.
The writing is solid, although writers Brad Keene and Chris Skinner would go on to little else in film and television writing. The directing and editing by producer/director Mike Mendez is crisp and effective, and you can see in it some of the early style that would later serve him well on genre favorites like Big Ass Spider and on the recently added to Netflix streaming Don’t Kill It.
If Gravedancers has any one truly damning failure as a horror movie, it’s only to be found in a part of the last act of the film. After serving up a very effective and sometimes nicely chilling vengeful, evil ghost story, a major portion of the resolution turns into an over the top CGI fest. While it doesn’t entirely put a pin in the balloon and blow the ending apart completely, it did end up feeling like the resolution lost some of its overall tension and impact. Although, depending on your tastes, the ending is somewhat saved by a scene that explains an unanswered question and seemingly sets the stage for a (probably wisely) never made sequel.
Gravedancers is enjoyable, it has its scary moments, and it’s a wonderful addition to anyone’s Halloween horror viewing or their horror movie collection in general. Gravedancers is still available for purchase on DVD as well as in digital download form.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found occasionally writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the ESO Pro: The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.