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A Review of "Open Grave" (2013)

The Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

There are some serious script problems and a few pacing issues that prevent it from truly excelling, but Open Grave is an overall interesting take on a well-tread subgenre of horror.  If you can look past all the cliches, contrivances, and about 20 minutes of wasted time, there's a nifty and well-made thriller here.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Bit Where I Describe the Premise and Then Warn About Spoilers

"John" (Sharlto Copley) wakes up in a pit surrounded by corpses with no memory of where he is, who the dead people are, or why they're dead.  There are no clues available to him - he doesn't even have a wallet or any kind of ID that would remind him who he is.  He is trapped until an enigmatic, mute woman (Josie Ho) throws a rope down to him and helps him escape the pit.

John makes his way to a nearby compound / house where he finds four other living people.  After a brief standoff, they admit they have all lost their memory.  Despite the paranoia and distrust that comes with waking up in a strange house with a pit full of corpses in the backyard, they form an uneasy truce to try to solve the mystery together.

Basically the rest of the movie is them finding mysterious creepy, bizarre, and horrifying things, such as mutilated corpses strung up in the trees outside, odd medical equipment, abandoned prison-shacks out in the woods, and other horror movie trappings.  Nothing immediately reveals their plight, but there are signs pointing toward some kind of cataclysmic event that is supposed to happen on the 18th of the month - which appears to be only a few days away.

Since the entire premise of this movie is that a bunch of amnesiacs try to figure out what happened to them, there's pretty much no way to discuss the stuff I want to discuss without spoiling everything.  So I'm going to openly talk about the plot and the big reveal after the break.

The Bit Where I Spoil the Big Reveal

John is actually "Jonah Cooke," a researcher and biologist who specializes in infectious diseases.  The world has been hit hard by a Zombie Plague.  Jonah and his fellow amnesiacs are part of a team that was trying to isolate the cause of the disease in order to find a cure.  As luck would have it, Jonah did actually create a treatment that can prevent and undo the virus's effects, but it has the unfortunate side effect of erasing the subject's memory.

Right before the start of the movie, the team was attacked by some zombies and had to quickly inject themselves with the treatment in order to avoid a total loss of all of their research.  This meant they all forgot everything about the zombies, the research, and the treatment, which I assume must have taken up the last couple of years or so, right?

The Bit Where I Complain

Any movie that has a twist ending opens itself up to criticism on the basis of how much of the story is rendered implausible or outright meaningless by its twist.  Open Grave is ironic because the problem isn't so much that the twist ruins the rest of the movie, but that the rest of the movie doesn't measure up to the twist.

I actually really love this concept.  Zombie movies are pretty much played out now due to the popular misconception that "zombies" = "hilarious," thus prompting a glut of zombie-related discussion and pop culture.  There's so goddamn much that any idea you have for a zombie movie has almost certainly been done before.  Open Grave manages to take this well-worn concept and do something that's actually halfway unique.

(Granted, the idea of a bunch of strangers with amnesia squaring off while trying to resolve the mystery is not exactly a fresh idea either... but I can give it a pass.  I'm all for mixing two cliches together to create a new recipe as long as you can do it with zest.)

The problem, though, is that the characters don't actually do a whole lot to uncover the mystery.  They learn about the zombies pretty quickly just by blindly stumbling into them.  But the part about being a team of researchers?  They just don't seem to grasp it.  What ends up happening is one of two things:

1) Somebody finds evidence that they were part of a medical research outfit and outright ignores it or completely misinterprets it.  ("Here's a video of you administering some kind of serum to a patient.  Hmm... you must be... torturing them!  You monster!  I'll kill you!")

2) Somebody finds something that provides no evidence whatsoever and then decides to focus on it for way too long.  ("There's an empty shack with no clues.  I better examine it again just in case I missed something.")

Most of the mystery is revealed by the characters' memories coming back to them naturally, fading in as the effects of the medicine wear off.  This means that the movie's central conflict is resolved without any action on the part of the protagonists, thus rendering them kind of unimportant.

So why even watch them try to figure it out?  If they just sat in a room for two days and tried to relax, they would've been just as productive and they probably would've lived longer, too.

The fact that they really aren't solving anything leads to a lot of problematic script issues where the characters will re-tread something.  It's kind of like that trope where a movie will have a character flashback to something that happened only 30 minutes ago to remind the stupid part of the audience what the plot is.  Except in this case it's even worse since nothing was revealed 30 minutes ago, so it's not actually re-explaining anything.  It's just tiring.  It feels like back-tracking in a video game.

A perfect example.  About an hour in, John/Jonah gets into a fight with Lukas (Thomas Kretschmann), one of the other dudes who suspects John of being a madman.  Lukas punches John out and then throws him back into the pit of corpses.  About two minutes pass, and then Mute Girl comes by and throws down a rope to John exactly the same way she did at the beginning.  Thus this scene accomplishes nothing.

But, wait, Open Grave isn't done yet... because in another half hour, John goes back into the pit again.  And once again, he wanders around for a few minutes... only for Mute Girl to throw the rope down one more friggin' time so John can climb up and escape.  (For real this time.  This is the end of the movie.)

I can forgive the third time it happens because it's a good bookend moment, but what's the point of that second time?  It's just a complete waste of momentum.  How many goddamn times do you need to put the fucking open grave in it before you're comfortable with us understanding that your movie has an open grave in it, Open Grave?

The Bit Where I Liked It, Anyway

I'd still recommend the movie despite the fact that I just spent this entire post whining about it.  Even though it has problems, it remains interesting and suspenseful throughout and there's some excellent creature effects and set design.  It's a great movie to watch on a Sunday afternoon when you're feeling lazy and distracted.

I would most liken it to Identity, a similarly dumb movie with some awful cliches and a script full of huge holes that still winds up being watchable and gripping in spite of itself.  In fact, go ahead and do a double feature of those, and then wrap up with Mindhunters and you'll have yourself a brainlessly fun afternoon.