All questions that mounted in my mind during “Open Grave,” a horror movie about memory loss and zombies, weren’t answered until quite literally the last minute, when a closing voiceover narration conveniently provided me with the exposition I so longed for. Up until that point, I was absolutely at a loss to determine what the hell was going on, and why, and which characters had significant roles to play. Although an explanation is at last provided, its placement directly before the end credits ensured that it was too late in the game for me to adequately process it. Why couldn’t it have been provided earlier in the film, like right at the start of the third act? At least then, the action-heavy finale would have had some context, and I would have had more time to make sense of why certain character did what they had to do.
The director is Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego. Many thought I was downright bonkers for recommending his previous film, the found-footage space thriller “Apollo 18.” True enough, that film was wholly unoriginal, and it had a hole in the plot big enough to drive a truck through. But damn it all, at least I knew what was happening, and its visual style was far more agreeable. Compare the latter to “Open Grave,” which, as the title suggests, seems to depend on the sight of rotting corpses in order to get its point across. This isn’t all that pleasant to look at the first time, and it only gets less pleasant as the film progresses. By the time we reach the final shot, I had to wonder if Gallego’s fascination with death and decay is really just the tip of the iceberg, if his mind goes to places too morbid to even mention.
I do give the film credit for its opening shot, a downright frightening closeup of a man’s glassy eyes that pulls back to reveal a mud-caked face. He isn’t dead. He is, in fact, coming to after a period of unconsciousness. His body convulses painfully, to the point that we can hear the cracks and snaps of his bones. A flash of lightning, and he realizes he’s in a deep, open, earthen pit, surrounded by dozens upon dozens of dead bodies. After picking up a gun, which was conveniently placed so that he could actually find it amongst the grisly scene, a rope is lowered into the pit, enabling him to climb out. Disoriented and in desperate need of help, he wanders through a dense patch of woods and happens upon a house. He enters, brandishing his gun, and finds himself in a confrontation with five other people.
And this is the point at which the film begins spinning its wheels without ever really going anywhere. The man from the pit (Sharlto Copley) has no memory of how he ended up there. He doesn’t even know his own name. All he knows is that he woke up in an unfamiliar place. As it turns out, the same is true of four of the other five people. Unlike the man from the pit, the other four immediately find their IDs, which means they can designate themselves. They determine that their names are Sharon (Erin Richards), Lukas (Thomas Kretschmann), Nathan (Joseph Morgan), and Michael (Max Wrottesley). All of them, including the unnamed man, have retained some degree of muscle memory. Michael, for example, is a natural at loading guns and holding them in a very specific way, indicating that he’s a cop. Nathan discovers that he’s capable of reading and understanding Latin and French, while Lukas, without any evidence whatsoever, inherently distrusts the unnamed man, believing him to be responsible for the situation they’re all in.
The sixth person is an unnamed Asian woman (Josie Ho), who obviously knows who the other five people are and how they came to be there but cannot tell them because she’s mute. It’s not explained if she physically cannot speak, if English is a language she doesn’t understand, or both. Her narrative purpose will not be made clear until the voiceover narration at the very end; before that, she comes off as a mere observer who has no real part to play, apart from providing an ominous warning about the date of April 18. As this is being established, the other five characters spend the rest of the film trying to piece together the mystery of their predicament. Why is there a perimeter fence surrounding the property, and why is the fence adorned with corpses? Why is a feral woman chained in a compound? Why does a boy seem to know the name of the man from the pit? And why is it that the house is surrounded by zombies, who aren’t technically dead but still have a tendency to bite people?
Why, indeed. Answers are provided, but not until the very last scene of the film. Before then, we have nothing but speculation to go on, made possible only because of very vague hints. This can be an effective storytelling method, but only up to a point. Waiting until the tail end to explain what a movie is about is a little like waiting until after a patient with a broken arm jumps into a pool to explain that he can’t his cast wet. It might have been better to not provide any explanation at all. That might have made the film more confusing than it already is, but at least it would have remained consistent. It might have even opened the film up to interpretation, which is sometimes a welcome challenge. But that’s neither here nor there. Given the subject matter and its use of horrific imagery – dead bodies, mostly – I have no doubt “Open Grave” will find its audience.