It’s easy to start strong, but you have to finish with a flourish if you want all that early work to measure up. Case in point: this week’s other horror movie, the one that doesn’t involve shaky-cams and scary witches. Open Grave presents us with a beautiful puzzle box to start things out, then peppers it with tons of intriguing questions along the way. Add to it the presence of South African actor Sharlto Copley -- one of the most interesting performers in the business today – and the film is definitely cooking with gas. But somewhere before the final credits roll, it ends up fizzling out.
There’s an unpleasant sheen to a lot of what’s going on, and that certainly doesn’t help. We get the details in bits and pieces; the nasty shocks circle the protagonists like sharks but never go in for the kill. That discipline keeps Open Grave from descending into torture porn, but also sabotages the better elements on display. We start with Copley waking up in a pit full of dead bodies, stricken with amnesia and totally unaware of how he got there. He makes his way to a nearby farmhouse where five other people await, also with amnesia and also possessing haunting tidbits of who they are and what they might be doing there. For the first few scenes, it fills us with delicious anticipation of what might be coming.
It can’t build on that. Fascination soon gives way to repetition, as the characters slowly explore the gruesome details of their surroundings. They fumble slowly towards the answers in ways that only create more questions, and start to move into some very tired horror movie territory in the process. We get corpses tied to trees with barbed wire, strange wailings in the distance, and some serious woods that suggest no other settlements nearby. I won’t delve into further specifics lest the surprises be ruined – they’re thoughtful enough to earn some respect -- but neither are they as mind-blowing as the film dearly wants to pretend.
Director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego stumbles into one of the most dangerous pits for horror movie directors: focusing on technique at the expense of story. Open Grave shows a lot of polish and its creepy atmosphere carries the heft to support something much better than this. The director manages to keep it going for longer than he might, and the inevitable twists and turns shake the scenario loose from complacency more than once. That makes the inevitable letdown during the finale all the more exasperating, as we can almost taste better things just around the corner. They never quite get there: pulling us along agreeably enough, but leaving us with the faint hint of being snookered by the time we’re over. The last twenty minutes, in particular, smack of creative ennui, using a haunting closing shot to make up for the fact that we really never got the answers we craved in the beginning.
It might not have even reached that far without Copley in the lead. With the exception of a single payday for The A-Team, he has resolutely avoided mainstream pictures, choosing instead to devote his talents to indie fare like this one. It paid off like gangbusters in Europa Report, and the intensity of his performance here helps stave off the doldrums that threaten to consume it. But he can’t do it without some help from the movie itself, and that, sadly, just can’t break free. This was the horror movie intended to provide a smart alternative to the ubiquitous Paranormal Activity sequel opening on the same day. Despite grander ambitions, however, Open Grave leaves us unsatisfied, a potential banquet that turns out to be just another drive-thru trip to McDonald’s.