Thursday, May 29, 2014

Open Grave: Unknown Knowns

So in my last post about Creep, I complained about the use of prologues in horror movies as a way to introduce the idea that there’s going to be a Bad Thing that’s going to happen to or be encountered by the protagonists. I complained about it because I think it’s an overused device that saps some of the tension out of some movies. Not always - certainly it’s possible to have a prologue whose meaning is revealed or changes as the film unfolds - but often it seems like it’s just a mostly-unrelated bit of scary business meant to tell us that something scary is going to happen, which no shit, it’s a horror movie. I think it’s equally useful to open films innocuously, building things up or introducing the threat in a sudden, shocking fashion instead of “people we will never see again meet a bad end, smash cut to title.” It’s something that’s been bugging me for a bit, and that last movie just happened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

But then I got to Open Grave, a measured exercise in the gradually unfolding horror of discovery that utterly denies the idea of the prologue, and does so pretty well.

We open at night, during a storm. A man slowly regains consciousness, working painful kinks out of his arms and legs. He’s been out for some time and seems to be in pain. He finds a gun lying near him. It’s hard to tell where he is at first, because it’s dark and raining. As the camera pulls up from the man, an especially large flash of lighting tells him and us where he is... a large concrete pit, filled edge-to-edge with corpses.

A figure at the edge of the pit lowers a rope, and the man climbs out. The figure disappears into the dark, and the man is left to his own devices. He finds his way to a house, where he discovers five more people. Four of them, like the man himself, suffer from complete memory loss. None of them can remember how they got where they are, or even where that is. The fifth is a woman - the person who pulled the man out of the pit - and as it transpires, she is incapable of speech, and can only write in Chinese, which none of them speak. Six people with no history or identity to share, in a strange place, just down the road from a recently-made mass grave. Who are they? Why are they there? Where are they? Why are there dozens and dozens of corpses nearby?

The rest of the movie is a process of discovery, as these people start to recover some vague flashes of memory and explore their surroundings, trying desperately to piece together who they are and what's going on, and it really does take the better part of the movie for everyone (the protagonists and the audience) to put the pieces together. Needless to say, there’s some bad shit going on, and the way the story is told primarily through the setting is excellent - the characters move from the house out into the surrounding woods and find chaos, inexplicable things, abandoned laboratories and medical facilities, people in terrible, desperate condition and none of them can figure out why. It reveals the scope of what has happened bit by bit as much as anything else, and although there's not a lot to the characters (there can't be because even they don't know who they are) and there's at least one handy contrivance (it’s really convenient that the one person who could shed some light on the whole thing is incapable of communicating with the others), it really does do the gradual reveal well - things seem bad, then worse, then even worse, then as you start to take in the implications of everything you've seen, there's this pronounced feeling of dread. It's not an obvious outcome but there aren't really any twists to speak of either, it's just not all spoon-fed to you from the beginning.

This approach is also interesting because the filmmakers extend it to the characters as well. You really see the protagonists grapple with their loss of memory - they can do things (like shoot and speak multiple languages) with ease and are baffled by the discovery that they can do so, and they feel things without being entirely sure of why they feel them, and it nicely reflects the compartmentalized nature of memory, since actual amnesia doesn't wipe the slate totally clean. You can forget who you are and still be able to do all of the things you could do before you lost your memory. You can respond to people emotionally and not know why, and that’s conveyed well throughout. They're as much in the dark as we are, and although the dialogue is a little stilted - lots of people just sort of making pronouncements and observations into the air instead of having conversations with each other - their sense of confusion and helplessness is palpable and it helps the overall feeling of confusion and uncertainty in the face of what seems like some looming, awful thing a lot. There’s a nightmare around them and a worse one coming, and they are tormented by their inability to recall its actual shape.

On the other hand, the biggest weakness of the film is bound up with its strength. The nature of the narrative means that it’s not as tense as it could be - everything feels sort of disconnected, there isn’t really a strong sense of geography, either physically or temporally. They’re over here, now they’re over there, and it’s tough to follow the sequence of events sometimes when the protagonists split up into groups. Things that should be shocking aren’t always, because it’s clear from the get-go that something very bad happened and the discovery-based narrative means that it’s less about “oh shit, what just happened?” and more about “oh shit, why did that just happen?” which doesn’t carry the same sort of immediate, visceral shock. Combined with the declamatory nature of the dialogue, it blunts some of the impact, even though the sense of disconnection and incoherence is perfectly appropriate from a narrative standpoint. It does pull it out in the end though - the last big reveal, even once we’ve all put together the mystery, is a gut-punch all the same. It’s an indication that as bad as things seemed to be at the start, they are in fact much worse that we could have imagined in scale and scope, and in that terrible knowledge the bottom drops out from under us and the implication of everything that has come before comes crashing in all at once, and it stayed with me for days afterward. A movie about the loss of memory has been very difficult to forget.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available from Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

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