A bleak and twisted “murder” mystery in the vein of Identity with the sensibilities of Saw, Open Grave delights in toying with the audience’s deductive prowess and is as much a whodunit as it is a whyisit (hereby coined). In presenting us, initially at least, with a simple setup, the film capitalizes on a straight forward tale that quickly spirals into a surreal nightmare for all those involved.
Strong performances from relative unknowns and up and comers, plenty of stomach churning imagery (made all the more hard hitting for our characters due to the fact that it’s all shrouded in mystery) and revelations that emerge in an unforced manner, all make for an intense watch. The ironic downside to this bloody riddle is that it offers up so many tantalizing options for what will comprise its climax that the actual outcome (though strong) seems diluted against the crazy postulations that were swirling about my mind – my fault.
At least in the early stages, Open Grave embraces the tropes of a number of serial killer murder mysteries with a group of strangers, devoid of the memory of who they are or where they are and who must work through their ordeal (all while paranoia as to if one of their own is responsible lingers in the background). This quickly proves to be the agenda in framework only, as a pit of dead bodies, a strange isolated cabin and bloodied human scarecrows littering the property’s perimeter all throw horrific kinks into the setup. With our protagonists as much in the dark as the viewers, we learn things through them, with only infrequent flashbacks as their memories slowly return to enlighten us. Refreshingly, there really is no cheap “gotcha” moment to be seen.
Open Grave is more about the unsettling mood and horrifying nature of the situation (and the underlying intrigue) than it is about explicit gore, jump scares or, as I just iterated, manipulative twists. Similarly, a relief is that these individuals are not moronic, but rather scared, confused people thrust into a situation we could label as more than extreme. At times their rationale may be tainted, but it’s more a by-product of necessity, anger and disorientation than outright stupidity, and in the end nobody perishes by wandering off alone into a dark basement.
The tension generated by Open Grave is at times oppressive, beating us down with the unexplainable horrors on display before eventually placing us squarely with the film’s characters in terms of a sense of uneasiness. This feeling may wane towards the finale as is the case with almost all horror flicks, but when it works as a piece of gut punch filmmaking, it really works. Much of this success must be attributed to director Gonzalo López-Gallego (proving to be far more confident and polished after helming the inexplicably dreadful Apollo 18) and his re-teaming with cinematographer José David Montero, whose collaboration this time recalls the best aesthetic tricks of films like 28 Days Later.
We also get nuanced, if far from deep, character building moments throughout Open Grave, courtesy of the returning memories of this band of amnesiacs. In addition to certain members bonding over the situation and near death encounters, they connect through physical memory at unintended junctures, be it through the clasping of a hand or the look in someone’s eyes. Do some of these strangers actually know one another from before? Is one character casually calling another by a playful nickname habit kicking in? And once and for all who, if anyone, is the party responsible for this sadistic display?
Easing us through the situation is the strong collection of thesps, lead by the always wonderful Sharlto Copley, a man who is quickly demonstrating he could make a film about the invention of the garbage bag fascinating. He is the unlucky (and nameless) individual who awakens in the titular open grave, and who proves to be the subject of a great deal of scepticism from his compatriots having not personally roused with them in the cabin. The great character actor Thomas Kretschmann also joins as the hardened, would-be leader of the group, whose reaction to the growing pressure of the ordeal may be the key to finding the truth. Joseph Morgan (The Vampire Diaries), Erin Richards (Breaking In), Josie Ho and Max Wrottesley also do very fine work, rounding out a cast chalk full of promising and proven talent.
As is the case with so many high concept genre films, the ending of Open Grave is sure to divide viewers, but at the very least it works in its own contained universe, even if the revelations aren’t of the shocking variety (and some odd plot turns may raise more holes than necessary). Personally, I found it to be perfectly adequate and with the solid filmmaking aspects and performances by which it was preceded, it’s easy to accept it for what it was (not to mention serving as a prequel in a way to an entirely different genre of horror).
In a corner of filmmaking that currently seems to be dominated by supernatural jump scares, demonic possession and copious amounts of blood, Open Grave shows healthy yields through calculated touches of the macabre and twisted imagery, a frightening setup and the odd bloody burst. Seemingly low on the radar as far as horror is concerned, this is one to check out as solid antidote to the usual clutter.
Its climax may not be to everyone's tastes, but so relentless are the number of intriguing questions present in Open Grave's onset that it more than warrants a look.