Having mostly given up on the idea of true originality in horror, there are really three things essential to new genre films to make them “work.” Suffice it to say it would be great to see a movie with all of them, but in order to overcome all of the clichés and conventions that horror fans have seen hundreds of times, filmmakers today either need a solid concept or angle, competent if not creative execution or style, or good characters and especially actors to make the audience care. Sadly, The Graves has only about half of one of these: a formulaic tale of two sisters terrorized in the Arizona wilderness by a group of evangelical hillbillies, the film is too unimaginatively conceived and too poorly executed to do more than limp along in the shadow of the films from which it’s stolen its ideas.
Jillian Murray and Clare Grant star as Abby and Megan Graves, two geek hotties from Scotsdale, AZ who embark on a road trip before older sister Megan takes off for the mean streets of New York. Finding themselves lost en route to the world’s biggest thermometer, the waitress at a small-town diner suggests they visit Skull City Mine, an ominous local landmark that promises the two horror fans plenty of creepy thrills. But the sisters get more than they bargain for when they discover that the abandoned mine is a killing ground for a hillbilly blacksmith named Jonah who appears to be operating at the behest of Reverend Abraham (Tony Todd), an evangelical preacher who claims that their god demands regular sacrifices – and wants the Graves sisters to be next.
To say that every element of this story is painfully familiar would be an understatement: the opening scene features a running victim easily chased by a walking killer, and the rest of The Graves only gets more clichéd from there. Cell phones regularly die, characters casually walk into situations they know are dangerous, fugitives separate and forget about each other, killers let go of victims when the story requires it, and at one point, a person appears to forget completely that she’s been stabbed in the heart. The girls’ road trip makes virtually no sense to begin with – only ironic hipster douchebags are interested in stuff like oversized thermometers – but the film stacks the deck so heavily against the townspeople and their malevolent designs that it seems unlikely if not impossible that two horror fans and would-be “monster hunters” wouldn’t smell the potential danger long before they’re being chased by burly men with heavy machinery.
Hillbillies and religious fanatics have long been the enemies of comely horror heroines, but the two main characters of The Graves are written as dumbly as their would-be killers, making the audience eager to see them struck down. While writer-director Brian Pulido does them no favors – they literally change personalities between one scene and the next – the actresses offer little in the way of substance to flesh them out. As Megan, Grant is meant to be the tougher of the two, a maternal force that motivates her mousier sister, but neither of them is convincing, and Murray’s so whiny you want Abby to die. Again, however, their lack of likeability has more to do with the way they’re written than acted, making both Megan and Abby inconsistently strong and weak, in a hurry and lackadaisical, glib and overserious, leaving the audience to wonder who they really are – if they still care by the end of the film.
Shot digitally with an obviously limited budget, it’s understandable that some corners had to be cut in order to bring the film to the screen. But the use of a lot of CGI blood, as well as the staging of many of the murders off screen, pretty much eliminates any of the film’s appeal to gorehounds. During the pivotal scene where the girls discover that Skull City is a homicidal wasteland, Megan describes the death of a guy off screen for about a minute before we see anything at all; later, about four people in a row die from throat slashes, suggesting that the filmmakers had only one prosthetic application for the entire production. But Pulido generally seems so passionate about just doing something that he never bothers to try and do anything especially well, showing his cards too early, foregoing even a semblance of suspense and generally failing to generate one genuine frightening moment.
Overall, The Graves may find an audience among forgiving, entertainment-starved horror fans, but unlike at least one of its Afterdark competitors, the Clive Barker adaptation Dread, this isn’t a real movie. It’s a collection of tropes in search of a story, a series of special effects in need of an idea to tie them together. Saddest of all, for an otherwise overstuffed compendium of clichés, it leaves out one of the most valuable ones – completely unnecessary, gratuituous nudity. But ultimately, The Graves contains virtually none of the necessary elements to succeed even as a cult creepshow, which means that commercially speaking, it will likely end up dying a quick and painless death. Then again, that’s probably also the thing that will be most-wanted by the unlucky folks who have to sit through the film, so it’s best not to even entertain the possibility of this thing fulfilling any requirements – yours or mine – and bypassing it for imminently better pictures.
After Dark Horrorfest is in theaters January 29nd–February 5th and on DVD March 23rd, titles include: ZMD:Zombies of Mass Destruction, The Final, The Graves, Hidden, Dread, Lake Mungo, Kill Theory and The Reeds.