The writing-directing team of Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz–collectively known as the Vicious Brothers–will happily remind you that the trailer for their feature debut, last year’s Grave Encounters, has been viewed over 20 million times. This kind of widespread reaction to the duo’s found footage horror film was in part, why those chose to revisit it in the sequel, Grave Encounters 2, which sees the story of a haunted Asylum go meta, get a new lead, and a new director with their friend and frequent collaborator John Poliquin.
But Internet fame wasn’t the only reason that they decided to reopen the door to the asylum: “I think that we left so many unanswered questions with the first film,” Minihan tells me, “that we wanted to write a script that had a lot more detailed plot and could delve further into this mythos that we created but never fully paid off in the first film.” In that film, a documentary crew for the Ghost Hunters-like “Grave Encounters” visits an unnamed mental institution in Canada, only to find that not only are they being stalked by ghosts, but that the building itself is some kind of malevolent presence. In the sequel, film student Alex Wright (Richard Harmon) becomes obsessed with the film, leading him and another group of unfortunate videographers into an encounter with the asylum.
For Ortiz, they were worried going into the sequel about repeating themselves, retreading some of the same ground covered in the first film. He says that thankfully, distributor and backer Tribeca Films was interested enough in a follow-up to their successful first feature that the duo was given free hand to go in a new direction, in this case making a movie about the phenomenon of the first movie. Ortiz says going meta with it was immediately approved by Tribeca, based solely on a pitch scribbled on the back of a napkin.
Ortiz and Minihan are aware that the immediate point of comparison would be Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, the notoriously terrible follow-up to the wildly successful 1999 film which kicked off a brief mini-renaissance of found footage horror. For Ortiz, though, the comparisons aren’t really applicable: for one thing, the Vicious Brothers’ script maintains the found footage conceit while Book of Shadows (directed by Paradise Lost documentarian Joe Berlinger) went full-on shot-on-film feature. “We were always kind of fascinated by that opening,” Ortiz says of Book of Shadows’ first few minutes which established The Blair Witch as a worldwide cinematic phenomenon. For him and Minihan though, the follow-through was where that movie failed. He likewise cites Wes Craven’s Nightmare and the way that movie played with the real and film worlds, although they felt like up to this point, meta horror still hadn’t been done right.
So after wrapping their script, they recruited Poliquin, who confesses to being a fan of the first movie. He hoped to be true to that movie while giving Grave Encounters 2 its own movie.
The idea of authentic horror is a thread that runs through Grave Encounters 2, as its protagonist Alex channels his horror filmmaking ambitions through his obsession with Grave Encounters and exposing the mysteries of that movie. Ortiz says this was inspired, in part, by his and Minihan’s own film school cockiness. He feels that in part, Grave Encounters 2 is about Alex finding his own voice as a filmmaker as he struggles with his own meandering student feature which doesn’t have its own identity.
Minihan says it was also a chance for them to poke fun at the found footage genre as well as their own first film. Ortiz says that Grave Encounters was actually the result of their frustrations with their own writing process after collaborating on three scripts together which for one reason or another–budget, scope–were simply not possible to film with their limited resources. “Every time we’d sit down to write a script, we’d say ’alright, we gotta write something low budget, we gotta write something that can be made for no money,’ because we [didn’t] really have any money at all,” Ortiz added, “and then by the end of it we’d come out and say ’This is a five $5 million movie, we’re idiots, we can’t make this.”
After another bout of being fed up with three failed attempts to get something done, the duo, sitting down to watch episodes of Ghost Hunters struck on the idea of making a feature around that concept. That, combined with having a location in mind–Minihan shot a Papa Roach video at the asylum location–the duo finally had something.
Grave Encounters 2 opens with a montage of people sharing their reactions to the first film via YouTube, with warts-and-all negative reactions from some viewers including Alex. I asked if Grave Encounters 2 was a direct reaction to either critics or haters but Minihan insists that wasn’t their intent: they wanted to poke fun at some of the shortcomings they saw in their first film while getting in digs at their own film school days selves (Minihan says film school students are the most critical people on the planet).
With Grave Encounters 2 out in the wild, Ortiz says their next project will be a sci-fi project called “The Visitors” that begins shooting which Ortiz says may start filming sometime next year if they can get financing. Poliquin is working with Minihan on a horror-thriller called “Occupy” set during the 2011 political movement.
You can catch Grave Encounters 2 on demand now. It recently began a limited theatrical release in New York, Baltimore, Phoenix, Denver, San Diego, and will hit Ohio in November.