Principal Cast : Sharlto Copley, Thomas Kretschmann, Joseph Morgan, Erin Richards, Josie Ho, Max Wrottsley.
Synopsis: A man, not knowing who he is, wakes up in a mass grave of bodies. He is rescued by another woman, and discovers a group of fellow amnesiacs in a house within a wood.
Pray you don’t wake up.
One doesn’t always need big, expansive locations of dazzling visual effects to make a great film. Sometimes, the smaller, more low-key efforts can be just as much – if not more so – effective in achieving their outcomes. Open Grave’s central plot, which features a group of people without memories, lost in what appears to be an abandoned house surrounded by corpses and an increasingly apparent influx of dehumanised creatures, thrives on its small cast and unwrapped mystery conceit, in which the story unfolds as each person begins to remember things. It’s this nightmarish, hand-wringing terror that grips the audience from the very beginning, and doesn’t let go until one of the most jaw-dropping closing shots I’ve seen in ages (at least, it made me gasp), that makes Open Grave such an effective film. There’s no massive explosions, no car-chases or furiously edited fight sequences, but Open Grave’s gritty, ephemerally stylish tones and palette, coupled with a really intuitively unravelling mystery, leave a lasting imprint regardless of scope and scale.
An unidentified man (Sharlto Copley) wakes from what appears to be death, without memory and deep down in a massive open grave, piled high with corpses. A woman (Josie Ho) rescues him, and the man makes his way through a wooded landscape to a run-down house, where he meets several other people who cannot remember anything. Initially suspecting a multitude of theories about their predicament, the group locate identity cards, which allow them to at least begin the process of remembering who they are, and what they’re doing there. Sharon (Erin Richards) tries to placate the initially confrontational men, led by John (Copley) and Lukas (Thomas Kretschmann), while the more reserved Nathan (Joseph Morgan) and skittish Michael (Max Wrottsley) appeal for some kind of action. The mute Asian woman (Ho) has some kind of connection to them all. As they explore their surrounds, they find a large number of corpses throughout the woods, surrounding the house like some kind of warning. John and Sharon locate other people who appear to be afraid of them, and who want nothing to do with whatever John wants, while Nathan uncovers the secret to why a smattering of zombified creatures appear to have been locked away in cages. It all leads to a mysterious date only a few days hence – the 18th – when “something” is going to happen. The race is on to determine what, or who, is going to happen on that date, and how it will affect them all.
From its twisting, head-scratching central story, to the deadened, stifling resolution, Open Grave is pitch perfect in execution of a simple, straightforward plot. Told in a weird kind of almost-flashback style, in which the characters learn about their mysterious past at the same time we do, Open Grave’s stylistic choices are dead-on for the kind of horror, terror and gut-churning nightmare the film brings to the table. Director Gonzalo Lopez0-Gallego, who helmed the rather inadequate Apollo 18, ups his game with this effort, bringing both the slow-burn puzzle of why our cast have no memories, and the gradual realization that something horrific has brought them to this moment, fully into focus with a sucker-punch final act that will have you aching for closure. While elements of the film might indicate the presence of zombies, don’t be fooled; this isn’t so much a zombie or monster film any more than Apollo 18 was a film about space travel. Traditional horror fans will probably guess a lot of the film’s twists or inevitable conclusion once the main “plot” is revealed, although hopefully some of those guesses won’t be quite right, leaving Open Grave’s marvellous build-up to work its way into your subconscious and nestle there, like a worm, burrowing into you with that bitter feel of failure. Open Grave has that desperate whiff of desperation within its frames, as our characters fight not against each other, but against their own memories (or lack thereof), driving the hopelessness forward as each clue is discovered, and each realisation come to.
Any good character-driven film needs not only great characters (well, duh), but actors who can deliver great performances. Although it’s easy to pigeonhole this film as a stock-standard horror flick, the film really isn’t that so much as it is a thriller, a race against a ticking clock. Horror tropes might mean that casting and acting probably aren’t the strong suit of any given film, but here, with Sharlto Copley and Thomas Kretschmann in leading roles, Open Grave succeeds with gravitas. Copley has excelled in roles that require him to perform with an intensity bordering on mania – his work in District 9, and more recently in Elysium, in particular, are again echoed here as he essays John Doe (or, as he later becomes, Jonah) with an increasing sense of desperation and frustration, wanting to do good but thought of as bad by the rest of the group. Is John a mass killer? Is he responsible for all the corpses in the mass grave, and for the spread of rotting flesh around the house? It’s this character dichotomy that Copley does so well, because his early behaviour indicates that he could be; whether he is or not I’ll leave you to discover yourself, but suffice to say, Copley out-acts everyone else in this movie. Kretschmann is suitably unsettling as Lukas, who transitions from “leader” of the pack to eventual “loner”, succumbing to the madness and the hysteria the story involves.
Secondary roles to Joseph Morgan, as Nathan, Erin Richards, as John’s supposed romantic lead, and Josie Ho as the mute woman who rescues John from the pit in the opener, add spice to the film, with Richards the stronger performer of the three, and the one with the most easily digested development. Morgan, who now stars in Vampire Diaries offshoot The Originals, steps out of his comfort zone with an edgy, restrained and at-times menacing performance (especially early), while Ho’s mute “Brown Eyes” character is infuriatingly obscure.
The film’s scripting is pure storytelling. There’s not a scene or element to the script – and Lopez-Gallego’s filming of it – that doesn’t drive the story forward. While the film’s opening half does feel fairly languid and dreamlike, by the time it settles into the real “uncovering the mystery” stuff, it crackles along like a rocket. As intimated earlier, there’s an ephemeral element to the films style, both visually and aurally; the soundtrack to this one is skin-crawling in effective chills, while Lopez-Gallego’s refusal to cut to show us specific things when we can hear something off-screen, focusing instead on the characters rather than the instigation of any action, adds menace. While I challenge anyone to claim that this film is truly horrific, there’s a mix of scares, violent aftermath, jump-crash edits and subtle gore that amps up the tension amongst the character-driven material. Open Grave tries to hide its scares in the darkness and the unknown, and I think it works well. No doubt others expecting more blood or gore will say otherwise, but honestly I think Open Grave is more effective by what it doesn’t show, than what it does.
Open Grave isn’t the film I thought it would be. In many ways, it’s better because of its focus on character rather than outright scares and gore, which will drive gore-hounds crazy. Led from the front foot by a terrific Copley, a manic Kretschmann and some solid supporting casting, and with a far superior sense of direction from Lopez-Gallego than he achieved with Apollo 18 (although one could say that Apollo 18’s main failing with with its scripting, rather than its execution), its my belief that this is one of the better “horror” films in 2013, even though it’s not your traditional “horror” film. Scary, yes. Effective, most definitely. Memorable – assuredly. Open Grave is potent, chilling stuff.