Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Two Brits, a German, and a woman from Hong Kong walk into a bar, except the bar is a forest and they don’t so much walk in as the do wake up in the middle of it. The common thread among them is that none of them know who they are or how they got there. Enter a South African (Sharlto Copley) who’s just awoken in an exposed pit filled with dead people and who, like his new friends, also has no recollection as to what the hell is happening.
Low on trust, high on anxiety, and fully loaded for bear thanks to a stocked armory, the group struggles to search for clues and remember who they are and what they could possibly be doing together in the middle of the woods. Memories slowly begin to bubble to the surface, but they’re not coming fast enough to adequately respond to the discovery of bodies tied to trees with barbed wire or left hanging from the branches above. And then the crazed, zombie-like mouth-breathers attack.
Details aside, Open Grave’s setup here is familiar enough that you’d be forgiven for immediately thinking the gang is trapped in purgatory and destined to eventually realize that they all died in a plane crash or maybe a spin class accident. Thankfully though the actual story is far more imaginative and interesting. If only its execution was as successful.
The various characters eventually discover a way to supply a name to most of their faces leaving Copley’s scraggly amnesiac with the John Doe moniker. The others, including defacto leader Lukas (Thomas Kretschmann), sole chatty female Sharon (Erin Richards), and the mysterious mute affectionately dubbed Brown Eyes (Josie Ho), have a natural distrust for John even as a vague familiarity builds in their memories. Brown Eyes actually has more of a clue than the rest, but their language barrier seems more than sufficient in preventing her from communicating with the others.
The script by Chris & Eddie Borey sets the stage quite well and actually delivers by the end with a resolution we haven’t quite seen before. John and company occasionally have brief flashes of “before,” and they help build an intriguing story while offering viewers clues as to where things are headed. Just when you feel convinced you know what’s up though something new gets tossed into the mix to make you uncertain again.
As strong as the script is in regard to the story the dialogue leaves something to be desired, and not even the mute escapes unscathed as it seems odd she couldn’t find some way to communicate with the others through hand-drawn pictures. The film’s communication suffers in general, both between characters and with viewers, and as the story unfolds we’re left puzzled by some of the choices made to move us from point to point.
John suffers a bit from the same affliction that weakened Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, the one that forces them to talk aloud to themselves solely to let viewers know what they’re thinking or doing at that moment. Granted, part of the problem there too is Copley himself. This is worlds above his work in last year’s Oldboy/Elysium double feature of atrocious over-acting, but he still has a ways to go for his craft. The restraint and quieter intensity does him good, but some of the simplest lines ring false when uttered by Copley and his mystery accent.
Director Gonzalo López-Gallego does a good job with the material and more than acquits himself of his 2011 found-footage flick, Apollo 18. The mystery and suspense are milked throughout, and while the action scenes are limited and a bit of a mixed-bag there’s enough pop to them to keep things moving. He also uses practical effects to maximum effect by teasing us with just enough well-done gore to enhance the world we’re experiencing.
Open Grave offers an engaging enough mystery, and genre fans should enjoy trying to figure things out before the characters do. It’s a bit of a disappointment thanks to its bumpy plot rollout and somewhat unfulfilling third act, but there are far worse things you could find in a hole in the ground.
The Upside: Very cool story idea; some good makeup effects; will keep viewers guessing; Josie Ho; final shot
The Downside: Execution of that cool idea is underwhelming at best; Sharlto Copley; the movie that comes after this one seems a lot more interesting
On the Side: Open Grave was filmed in Hungary, presumably because it was the ideal central meeting place for its international cast and crew.