Mysteries in stories are only as interesting as their resolutions, both in terms of what the solution is and how the reveal is handled. It’s not just about showing what’s actually been going on, it’s what knowing this means to the story, the characters, and the audience. Many good films, stories and shows have worked by having their end revelations thought out well in advance, unveiled in a way that turns the whole thing on its head, such as in The Sixth Sense or in many a Twilight Zone episode. However, there are also many other examples when writers have come up with a neat set-up, and not really thought through how it should all be resolved. TV shows like The X-Files and Lost fell victim to this, not having good answers to the central mysteries, making the whole thing seem somewhat unsatisfying. Can you guess what category Open Grave falls into?
A man (Sharlto Copely) awakens in a pit full of corpses. He has no memory of who he is, or how he got there. There are several other people nearby, almost all in the same predicament. They must work together to try and figure out who they are, where they are, and what’s happening. But it’s very clear from the start that they are in some sort of danger, though it’s unclear where from. Is there a threat within? Is one of them responsible for the mass grave? Or is the real danger somewhere outside? And how can you find answers when you don’t even know if you can trust yourself?
It’s an excellent set-up for a horror mystery… but Open Grave really can’t follow through on it properly. The best sort of mystery is one where it is possible to see the solution coming in retrospect, that there are clues that can lead to the answer if you know where to look, if you consider what is/isn’t being said or revealed early on. This film, while having lots of hints to the answer to the mystery, is one that ONLY makes sense in regards to a very overcomplicated resolution at the end. You can’t really figure all of it out without the end info-dump (hell, one major character’s entire role is only explained in the end narration, not by any clues). What’s more, the solution, after a set up that has the potential to go into all kinds of very weird areas, just turns out to be a slight variant on something we have seen a thousand times before in other horror movies. Finally, the actual solution does rely on some characters not simply going “oh yeah, we’d better write down what’s going on since we’re about to do something to scramble our memories”.
Beyond this there’s not a whole lot to this movie. There’s a sort of investigation, but it’s mostly just aimless wandering around in the woods, going from rundown location to location. The direction and camera work are only okay, with no real atmosphere or scares. The story is meh, with really one-note characters, hindered by the fact that all they talk about is trying to work out who they are. We could tell them that: they’re all the archetypal stock characters; the sensible woman, the loud a-hole who’s destined to get himself killed (there’s actually two here!), the smart ineffectual one, the obvious red herring and the mysterious one who’ll be really important in the end. As for acting, it’s not great, but that’s mainly down to not having much to work with. Anyone who’s seen District 9 and Elysium knows how good Sharlto Copley can be, so if even he can’t bring to life this material, there is no hope.
Open Grave is a dull, meandering film that bets everything on what it thinks will be trump card, but turns out to be the three of clubs. For a far better take on this sort of story, try the classic Twilight Zone episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit. It’s more stylish, better acted, has a great solution, and is only twenty-five minutes, as oppose to Open Grave’s hundred and two (very long feeling) minutes.