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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Open Grave (Blu-ray)
Open Grave (Blu-ray)
Universal // Unrated // July 15, 2014 // Region A
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 22, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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It sounds as if his bones are shattering as consciousness groggily regains its hold. He doesn't know where he is. He doesn't know how he got there. Hell, he doesn't know who he is, even. After fumbling with a lighter in his pocket, he too quickly comes to the horrifying realization that he's trapped in a sprawling open grave, standing atop who knows how many hundreds of corpses.
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There's so much more that can be said about the premise propelling Open Grave, but it's better left for others to discover. Viewers are thrust into much the same position as this stranger (Sharlto Copley). We have no idea who he is. We know as little about the horrors unfolding around him as he does. Suffice it to say, though, that this nameless figure isn't the only survivor of whatever it is that's claimed so many lives, he's not welcomed with open arms, and whatever amassed such a nightmarish body count is still out there somewhere.

One way to describe Open Grave is as some sort of middle ground between Memento and Cube. Like the latter, this is a somewhat of an ensemble piece with a slew of strangers trapped by forces unknown in a puzzle they don't understand. They each wield hidden talents and troubled pasts that soon come rushing to the surface. It's unclear if survival depends on cooperation or by winnowing out the more dangerous elements. Much the same as Memento, the film is driven by memory loss, a murder mystery, a dark history that gradually starts to take shape, and the gulf separating what we believe and what we know. The parallels between Open Grave and these other films don't necessarily end there, but to say more would be telling.

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A critical difference is that those are films I've found myself engrossed in time and again, holding up startlingly well to many repeat viewings. Open Grave doesn't wield nearly as gleamingly sharp a hook. Like a lot of mysteries, the film has a clear beginning and ending in mind, but it struggles to fill the space in between. So much of the first act is terrific -- the skillfully crafted and all-but-wordless introduction to Copley's "John Doe" as he awakes in the open grave, the mistrust among the survivors he soon encounters, and the pervasive questions about whatever the hell it is that's going on here. The ending isn't entirely satisfying, with a couple of dark notes that seem to be struck for no reason other than to be bleak and dour. On the other hand, it does put a fresh spin on a genre I thought I'd seen explored from every conceivable angle, reveling in far fewer familiar tropes than I ever would've guessed. (Apologies for being frustratingly vague, but I'm trying to avoid spoiling anything.) If I were writing an essay rather than a review, there's quite a bit of ground to mine about the nature of identity -- who we are versus who we'd like to be -- as well as that old "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it" chestnut, but I probably ought to move on now.

Open Grave's pace is too relaxed for this sort of thriller. There's a more taut film desperate to claw its way out from under all this weight. The more that comes to light about these characters, the less interesting many of them are. The performances tend to run in place, at least to an extent. Sharlto Copley and Thomas Kretschmann too often bark and snarl at whoever it is that's standing in their way. Joseph Morgan's discovery of the numerous languages he speaks gets stale all too quickly. Josie Ho largely remains a mute mystery, while Erin Andrews is more of an object than a fully-realized character. I do love the key revelation -- like a properly established mystery, there are bits and pieces I suspected beforehand, but that didn't form anything close to the complete picture -- but the journey there is too much of a slog. There are too many retreaded circles, too much of the same imagery recycled again and again, and too little emotional investment in any of these characters.

The frustrating thing about Open Grave isn't that it's an outright misfire -- it's not -- but that it's too okay. The film doesn't take full advantage of its very promising premise, and as strong as its eventual revelation is, much of my interest faded on the interminable trek to get there. It's something I'd find worth the time and price of a rental, but Open Grave is too uneven to recommend as a purchase sight-unseen. Rent It.


Video
Not only was Open Grave shot on 35mm -- rare enough these days for an independent genre release -- but this was reportedly a Techniscope production. I guess I haven't been paying close enough attention to notice that 2-perf has been making somewhat of a comeback. The end result is unmistakably filmic, making for a greatly welcomed change of pace visually. Definition and detail are certainly respectable, if not as dazzling as more polished 35mm productions. Black levels are appropriately deep and inky. Open Grave's choice of colors is at first cold and desaturated, but more of the film takes place under the bright of day than one might expect. It readily showcases more vividly saturated hues than genre films are generally willing to unleash these days, with its brilliant greens making the deepest impression. Contrast is robust throughout, and it's deliberately blown out in the memories that soon begin to flood back. The most glaring flaw comes as the camera pulls far back in Open Grave's final moments. The image is clumsily compressed throughout that long shot to the point of looking unstable. That's not at all a persistent nuisance, thankfully. This is a very solid presentation of a film that by design isn't intended to be glossy, high definition eye candy.

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Open Grave is unearthed on a single layer Blu-ray disc, presented at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded with AVC.


Audio
Open Grave offers a choice between two 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: the first in 5.1 and the other downmixed to stereo. The sound design throughout the multichannel audio is outstanding, taking pains to establish a strong sense of place. The subtle atmospherics throughout the 'house' sequences are wonderfully immersive without drawing undue attention to themselves. A key element of Open Grave is that the viewer knows as little about what's unfolding as its central characters, and even something like a creaking door in the left surround channel furthers that feeling of standing alongside them. There's even some directionality to the dialogue -- more, if you count distant moans and screams -- though the film is wise enough to use that somewhat sparingly. Open Grave being a thriller in 5.1 and all, it probably goes without saying that there are a few unnerving effects with sounds skittering around the surround channels as well. Open Grave's audio is reinforced by a healthy low-frequency kick despite its disinterest in summoning hellish waves of bass. It's just not that type of movie, and it's appreciated that Open Grave wasn't forced to sound as if it is. Dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly, never unduly struggling for placement in the mix and not marred by the slightest flicker of distortion. I'm really not left with any room for complaint at all.

The only other audio option is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.


Extras
The sole extra is a three and a half minute promotional featurette (HD). It's aimed more towards those who haven't already seen the film rather than those that have, content to recap the premise, touch on some of the overarching themes, and let a very lengthy excerpt unspool.

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Open Grave comes packaged in a flat slipcover.


The Final Word
Open Grave has been almost universally savaged by critics, and I understand that, at least to a point. Its languid pace, somewhat derivative core concept, uneven performances, wildly inconsistent intensity, and not entirely engaging characters drag it down, leaving Open Grave feeling like more of a reasonably strong rough draft of a better film to come. I'm obviously not arguing that it's some sort of instant classic that'll forever redefine the face of suspense, but for whatever my vote's worth, I like Open Grave well enough. The premise is right up my alley, I enjoy its approach to gradually unveiling the central mystery, and there are some very effective bursts of suspense. This isn't a movie I see myself desperate to revisit anytime soon, though, and the near-total lack of extras make a purchase that much less compelling. Worth a rental, but I'd be hesistant to recommend Open Grave beyond that. Rent It.
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