It’s often said that some of the best horror films are not the ones that dominate the big screens of our multiplexes, but the smaller, lower budget and limited release films that are released at a staggering pace over the course of each year. Open Grave is one such film, one that may not make it to the multiplex, but that through a combination of strong performances, an innovative twist on a familiar theme, and outstanding atmosphere manages to overcome its small-time roots (and some pacing and scripting issues here and there) and become a thoroughly satisfying little horror-mystery.
The film stars Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium) as a man who wakes up, confused and terrified and with absolutely no memory of who he is, in a massive pit full of dead bodies, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a loaded handgun. It’s this opening scene that sets the tone for the film right off the bat, as it’s gruesome and horrific and absolutely beautifully shot. Amid the pounding rain, Copley’s opening minutes are in total silence, only to be interrupted by his horrified reaction to the carnage around him, and it’s that sense of dread and despair, of absolute confusion and terror that each character that we meet will display that makes the film’s mood work so well.
Copley’s character eventually finds his way to a large house with another five people inside, all of whom have also lost their memories. The group notably includes the extremely paranoid and distrustful Lukas (Thomas Kretschmann), a mute woman who only understands Chinese (Josie Ho), and Sharon (Erin Richards), who gamely attempts to play peacemaker. From there, the film takes a slow, agonizing journey to figure out just what the hell has happened to lead them all to this nightmare in the middle of nowhere. And a nightmare it is indeed — as the group tries to explore the surrounding area, they come across bodies displayed as horrific trophies, mindless and crazed people who attack them on sight, and other increasingly disturbing horrors.
It’s that ongoing sense of discovery that keeps the film rolling, along with an excellent depiction of what memory loss must really be like. Both of those processes are frequently fascinating, even if sometimes it occurs at a snail’s pace. Each of them inadvertently discovering things like other languages that they speak, or an innate understanding of firearms, all come as a part of a truly nifty revelation process, and the gradual discovery of who they might be is a curious and engaging one, filled with red herrings and misdirects, all of which work in the story’s favor. Director Gonzalo López-Gallego — who unfortunately also directed the truly terrible Apollo 18 — learns from his missteps and conveys all of this in the midst of some truly horrible and grisly discoveries, which sparks suspicion throughout the group, makes the film a tense, stomach-churning experience.
It stumbles on more than one occasion, though — sometimes it feels like it doesn’t quite know what to do with its quieter moments, and there is a good bit of drag to the pacing. It often feels like there are interminably long stretches of them simply walking, purposeless and aimlessly, without any relevant or important dialogue, making it feel like simple filler. The saving grace for the slower scenes is some lovely cinematography and the surprises that inevitably follow those duller moments.
What will be most interesting about Open Grave is how viewers react to the ending, or the twist, if you will. The film ultimately ends up simply being an innovative twist on a relatively familiar trope, but it’s executed with a clever deftness that makes it seem like it’s breathing fresh air on a concept long-rendered stale. Despite its problems with pacing, thanks to its strong performances and some intense direction — not to mention sets and design that is at once both lush and terrifying — Open Grave ends up being a pleasantly surprising slice of horror.