MRR Review: "Open Grave"

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A man wakes up in the wilderness, in a pit full of dead bodies, with no memory and must determine if the murderer is one of the strangers who rescued him, or if he himself is the killer.
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Rating: R
Length: 102 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 3, 2014
Directed by: Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego
Genre: Horror / Mystery / Thriller

"Open Grave" is a taut exercise in psychological horror and mystery. As the film opens, protagonist John (played by Sharlto Copley) awakens in unfamiliar surroundings, sprawled on a pile of unrecognizable corpses. With no memory of the circumstances that led to this predicament, John abandons the dead bodies and searches for help. He soon encounters five other people who also lost and confused. Hunkered down in an empty house, the group members struggle to make sense of the situation, find answers and survive the night.

Spanish director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego uses dizzying aerial shots and bleak lighting to create the uneasy, disturbing atmosphere that pervades the film. Viewers experience John's horror and mounting dread as he surveys the devastation around him and leaves the corpses behind to search for help. Masterful sound design and Foley effects keep tension high as John's feet slurp through mud, crunch through fallen leaves and snap fallen branches. The effect is appealingly claustrophobic.

Lurching blindly through the woods, John eventually encounters Nathan, Lukas, Sharon, Michael and the mute Brown Eyes. They are also lost and confused and, like John, have recently awoken in this remote location. John joins them, but wonders if they are all telling him the truth about themselves. The six find shelter inside an abandoned house and plan to wait inside until daybreak. They allow John to join them. The mood is understandably tense, as the group members attempt to establish trust and investigate possible connections to one another.

John and his companions have distinct, colorful personalities that are more complex than those often found in horror films. Sharon cannot remember her occupation but has the first aid skills and quick reflexes of a paramedic. Lukas, a German immigrant, suffers from anxiety and experiences random, severe headaches. Michael quickly establishes himself as the least educated and least intelligent of the six. The reclusive Nathan repeatedly insists that he recognizes John's face, but he does not know why John seems familiar. The most mysterious character is the cryptic Brown Eyes, who cannot speak but clearly knows valuable information.

"Open Grave" does not make its audience wait long to encounter the most obvious danger to the group's survival. Shambling, flesh-eating humanoids lurk throughout the mansion and its grounds, threatening to devour anyone who gets too close. John and his compatriots soon realize that they each have an important connection to the mansion's past and to the grisly abominations that infest it. The past, however, quickly becomes the least of their concerns. A search of the property reveals fresh corpses trussed up along the mansion's perimeter. As they investigate these morbid scarecrows, the protagonists learn the full extent of the danger they face. They must find a way out, and quickly – or risk becoming undead horrors themselves.

Sharlto Copley's performance is unquestionably the finest in the film. He is a veteran of the horror and thriller genres and usually plays loud, impulsive and outrageous characters. In "Open Grave," Copley uses a different approach. John is a quiet, determined man of few words and deliberate actions. His calm demeanor is an excellent foil for Michael and Lukas, who are both prone to outbursts and impatience.

"Open Grave" is a well-balanced film. Its heady, cerebral brand of psychological horror forces viewers to think and pay careful attention to the dialog, and the gruesome zombie effects leave gore fans satisfied. There are also several excellent jump scares. Despite its intricate and disturbing makeup effects, the film contains little on-camera violence. Its pessimistic, gritty tone and slow-burning approach weave a suspenseful narrative that leaves audiences thinking long after the credits roll. "Open Grave" forces viewers to ask themselves how they would respond in a similar situation and how much of their past they would be willing to reveal.

"Open Grave" does without the nudity, sex and sophisticated CGI used in blockbuster horror films, but this is not a drawback. In the absence of slick stunts and animated monsters, the film relies on the strength of its characters and the inexorable horrors they must survive. The lack of sex is also refreshing and separates "Open Grave" from similar films in which attractive, lustful young characters quickly shed their clothing.

"Open Grave" puts a unique psychological spin on the zombie horror genre. It establishes director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego as a rising star in the United States and in his native Spain. This film also demonstrates Sharlto Copley's versatility and ability to carry a film without histrionics or hammy acting. "Open Grave" is a must-see for horror buffs and thriller fans. For the best experience, watch this movie in a single sitting and play it in a darkened room with the volume up.

Rating: 3 out of 5