When it comes to horror, Tribeca Film’s offerings have been hit (the breathtaking Resolution) or miss (the underwhelming Hollow). The fledgling distributor, however, must be given credit for taking risks when it comes to their roster of modestly budgeted signings. Even though 2013 films The Facility and A Night in the Woods received lukewarm responses, Tribeca continues to mine for provocative fare. Gonzalo López-Gallego’s grisly Open Grave (which opened December 24th) proves that the company hasn’t shied from this game plan. Consequently, the film is one of Tribeca’s strongest additions, and an intriguing way of exploring a viral outbreak story.
Sharlto Copley (Elysium, District 9) awakens disoriented in a mass grave filled with decimated corpses. He doesn’t know who he is or how he got there. He soon encounters a group of strangers holed up in a secluded house, all beset by the same predicament — no memory, and a mounting distrust for one another. The surrounding rural area looms with another threat — infected people who have reverted to a savage state, as well as rotting carcasses strung up around the grounds as a warning.
Screenwriters Chris Borey and Eddie Borey inject a refreshing element of mystery to the standard viral zombie film. Even though there are no zombies here per se, the film could have easily taken that path and descended into a by-the-numbers portrayal of an apocalyptic event. Instead, a portion of the story is dedicated to the survivors trying to figure how they relate to their fellow survivors on top of the obvious existential questions of their amnesiac plight.
The script, though creative, isn’t as robust as its potential following the brilliant opening. The film meanders as characters circumvent their circumstances and engage with infected people roaming around the house. A clearer explanation of the virus may have gone a long way in getting the audience to empathize, especially when it comes to the infected. A little ambiguity is great in genre work, but can be a detriment when it reduces sympathy for the victims, something it seems the writers were striving against, but fell short with a muddled presentation. The result is a tendency to reduce the infected characters to fodder for violent exchanges. Fortunately, López-Gallego is able to maneuver around most of the cracks by delivering solid, often startling sequences anchored by the exceptional cast.
López-Gallego helmed Apollo 18 (of which this reviewer is a fan), a film criticized for the conservative approach of its director in terms of action. Here, the director opts to go full tilt here with several horrific scenes that sidestep the larger psychological implications. Considering the foundation of the film tackles the neurological effects of the virus, the choice to stray from those psychological aspects — especially from the perspective of the infected — is disappointing. The screenwriters may have felt a degree of pressure to follow in the action-oriented footsteps of films like [REC] or The Crazies remake from 2010, something not inherently bad, but maybe not as satisfying in a film aiming for more. Though it can be argued that the approach is world’s better than offered by a film like Resident Evil (2002), the film suffers from moments of goofy inner-monologues to convey the characters’ internal struggles between the scares.
Overall, Open Grave is satisfying if imperfect, with moments that transcend the barriers of the genre. The makeup effects by Rita Horváth and the rest of the team are inspired and revolting. The pacing is great, and the 100 minute film flies by punctuated by a number of very well-executed, tense moments. Copley and the rest of the cast are completely committed, demanding our full attention if not outright sympathy. There’s little by way of dumb decisions, and the characters’ motivations are firmly rooted in the film’s ambitious premise, an existential crisis ill-timed with the grim end of days. After all, the bottom of a pit full of corpses is probably the worst place to start a journey of self-discovery.
Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego
Written by: Chris Borey, Eddie Borey
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Joseph Morgan, Thomas Kretschmann, Erin Richards, Josie Ho
Running Time: 102 min