Evidently taking its cue from the bewilderingly persistent "Final Destination" franchise, "Open Graves" is a slick-looking, though relatively low budget, Death-comes-a-calling supernatural chiller and genre vehicle for former Buffy star Eliza Dushku. It can't help but feel like a step down for the TV star of "Tru Calling" and the recently cancelled Joss Whedon series "Dollhouse" — who, although having maintained a fairly consistent commitment to the fantasy & Horror genre throughout her career, arguably hasn't appeared in anything decent since 2003's "Wrong Turn". This one follows a simple formula, mainly consisting of a series of set-pieces in which an international cast of good-looking surfer dudes suffer a set of bizarre, curse-based demises that, even with the supernatural premise at the root of proceedings, often seem curiously mundane in their execution.
It all starts promisingly enough with a historical prologue set amid some splendidly grotesque late 15th Century Inquisitorial shenanigans. Having been tried and presumably found guilty of being a witch by Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, one poor female unfortunate is subjected to a series of unnecessarily elaborate tortures in a dingy Spanish dungeon — fingernails are painfully prised off before a gory coup de grâce is delivered that consists of being flayed alive. For some reason, someone at some point afterwards had the bright idea of making an intricate and ornately carved board game out of the old witch's skin and bones (well, why not?). You may not have previously been aware that Monopoly-style board games were all the range in the late sixteen hundreds, but apparently they were — according to this film anyway.
The film now jumps incongruously forward to present-day Northern Spain, and, with the sudden burst of un-provocative mainstream rock music on the soundtrack (an annoying constant from this point forward), any macabre atmospherics the quite daft but promising opening may have had, are evaporated in an instant as we watch some 'sexy' wet-suited girls and handsome dudes with gym-sculpted six-packs, surfing and flirting on a sun-drenched Spanish beach. Homing in immediately on sultry surfer girl Erica (Eliza Dushku), is chiselled, blonde babe-magnet Jason ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre"'s Mike Vogel) as well as one of a bunch of unmemorable, wacky friends of his who are all soon to die horribly. They join up and go shopping amid some rustic local market stalls; inside a gloomy antiques shop, Jason is persuaded to buy an ornately carved board game called Mamba, from a creepy wheelchair-bound amputee. He takes it back home with him, and along with Erica and his other friends and acquaintances, they eagerly start play over a few drinks.
Landing on certain squares of the board requires one to take up one of the game cards, all of which turn out to have cryptic rhyming couplets printed on them (of a level of sophistication that rivals the average modern Birthday card) that seem to foretell an unpleasant fate for whoever has drawn that particular card. When the friends start dying one by one, it is Erica who is the first to notice that all of the deaths seem to be linked to the game itself. Some quick internet searching (the all-purpose info dump mechanism for lazy screenwriters) throws up a Fortean Times article (product placement?) on Mamba Masamba: the evil 15th Century witch whose skin and bones were used to fashion the Mamba board game, her blood and tears providing the ink for the printed game design and the verses on the cards. Legend has it that anyone who plays Mamba will die in the manner predicated by the game — apart from the winner, who gets the chance to have his/her heart's desire come true. As Erica and Jason battle to defeat the game's malign supernatural influence on their friends' lives, a grizzled detective investigating the death of someone recently found skinned alive in the vicinity, starts to express a curiously intense interest in the game, and soon Erica and Jason find themselves having even more trouble on their plate than simply the spirit of an evil witch who wants to kill them off in crazily offbeat ways.
The plot is, of course, fairly rudimentary, the main point of interest, as was the case with "Final Destination", being the kill set-pieces themselves. Things get off to quite a promisingly queasy start as the first victim gets nudged off a storm-lashed cliff and, after first being forced to slide painfully down a length of barbed wire, crashes to his death below on the jagged rocks. Even then, the Mamba forces haven't quite finished with him: crabs emerge from the depths and begin to feed on the corpse (poking out its eyes in close-up with surprisingly Fulci-esque glee).
The other deaths prove to be somewhat disappointing though: after the machinery in a saw mill does its best to amputate various parts of his body without success, one hapless chap in the end succumbs to a bunch of crudely rendered CGI mamba snakes that materialise out of nowhere; another girl gets bitten by a ghostly dragonfly that makes her age prematurely until her body becomes so frail that medics attempting to revive her after a seizure, punch straight through her chest!
All this might be slightly more diverting if it were possible to care about any of the one-dimensional characters we are presented with, but apart from Dushku (who gets to live in a lighthouse surrounded by 'weird' literature by the likes of Poe and Lovecraft, thus explaining why she is, at first, the only one of the lightweight group to get on to the supernatural nature of the strange events) everyone else conforms to typically bland throwaway genre stereotypes. The conclusion is so obvious, you'll wonder whether you haven't missed something. This is second division stuff with some serviceable but unimpressive CGI taking up far too much of the special effects load. The performances are okay, but no one gets that much to do other than wait around to be assaulted by various CGI creatures conjured up by the forces of death. Vogel and Dushku do their best with their wafer-thin characterisation, but that's not saying much, I'm afraid.
A routine effort by director Álvaro de Armiñán, then. It's always watchable enough, but never really ever captures the imagination to any great extent.
The region 2 DVD from Icon Home Entertainment has decent enough image quality, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0. The only extra is a trailer that manages the awesome feat of running through the entire plot of the film chronologically in two minutes flat!
Subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are also usefully included on the disc though.