It's not like I've never been here before. Failing to heed my own advice, in this case dispensed within my review of the pointless Soul Survivors, I have once again wasted a thankfully short period of my one life on this earth watching a terribly made, straight-to-video horror flick because of its lead actress. The cover image of Open Graves shows an image of lovely brunette Eliza Dushku crucified naked to a giant knife blade with snakes draped strategically around the parts not safe for store shelves. For anyone who didn't make it past the phrase "Eliza Dushku naked" without rushing to Google in search of screencaps, I must impart a bucket of cold water in the form of the sad truth: the cover is far and away the most titillating thing to be found associated with this film. In the film itself, we get about five seconds of Eliza waist-up in a bikini, which is over within the first three minutes. This would be forgivable if the film offered anything else, and I expect you've already guessed that it does not. Lucky you.
Despite some half-hearted attempt to establish a background mythology, the plot herein is more or less arbitrary. A board game created by a witch who was tortured to death by the Spanish Inquisition is given to our hapless young fodder by a creepy legless man in a shop in modern-day Spain, they play, and the expected occurs. Being eliminated from the game means dying in some awful manner dictated by the game's equivalent of Community Chest cards, and as the game is played within the first twenty minutes, that leaves but one possible eventuality for the remaining running time. The book "The 50 Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time" opined that "a list is not a song," and I would suggest that horror writers consider that a list is also not a plot. He dies, she dies; it's just ticking off boxes at semi-regular intervals until the last act-attempt to, you know, make it stop. Even if you've never seen this film before, you've seen everything in it before. I've never seen Eliza Dushku naked before, which is where the film fumbles its one chance to do something new. The camera constantly peeks out from behind foreground objects as it frames the soon-to-die, even though there is no stalker in the film and the threat that someone is going to leap out and punch somebody's clock is never on the table. Undercranked slo-mo, shadows and ominous music form a huddle around every shot we are meant to see as portentous. The director and editor were really keen on reminding the audience that the game board features a pair of carved snakes, as they show them about fifty times. And I imagine every single audience member, even those high on ether, could have chosen their words more carefully when making a wish to a totem of evil just seconds after being advised to choose his words carefully. Perhaps a list is not a review, either, but they didn't give me much to work with here.
Can I make a few suggestions here, in case any would-be horror writers are reading this? Why not make a film that someone might actually want to watch for some reason? Films of this sort are generally known for two things: scares and gratuitous nudity. Neither are found here. In terms of plot, setting up such stringent rules at the outset of your story is basically giving the viewer a synopsis of what's to come, making any possible tension evaporate. Furthermore, if you then break your own rules, do it in such a way as to make it seem to have a point, as opposed to being mere bad writing, eg. having the demonic forces try their damndest to off some bloke in a way totally contrary to that forecast by his "death card" before just giving in and dropping some CGI snakes out of the sky, which properly fulfills it. This dovetails nicely with my next suggestion: don't use CGI snakes. They look terrible. I sympathize with the fact that snakes aren't trainable, but scare scenes should not induce giggling and eye-rolling. In much the same vein, if your lead actress will not do nudity, don't try and fake that with CGI, either, unless it's good enough to actually fool us. And frankly, if your main selling point is a reasonably popular second-tier actress with a nice bod who can actually act, then either contrive a tamer way to utilize her sex appeal or write a character she can actually put some weight into. Or, if it's not too much trouble, do both. I'm not asking for Shakespeare, just Eliza in a skimpy bikini and with a personality I can invest in for the sum total of eighty-eight whole minutes of film time. Surely you guys can manage that, right?
My advice to Miss Dushku would be to seek out representation that seems interested in serving your career and will help leverage you out of the gutter of cheapo horror crap. Roles in productions like the rushed but intriguingly experimental Dollhouse and the crime caper Nobel Son have shown real screen appeal, and if your agent can't find work for a talented, hot, and extroverted babe, find a better one, so your many fans can stop subjecting themselves to this crap.
-review by Matt Murray