An Unquiet Grave is a remarkably simple but remarkably effective horror film. Two people, one camera, a handful of sets, kicking off with a scene at a graveside where grieving husband Jamie (Jacob Ware) meets Ava (Christine Nyland), the twin sister of his dead wife, Julia, and together they set off to resurrect the dead woman. What Ava doesn’t know is that the procedure is going to cost her a lot more than it’s going to cost him, which raises all sorts of questions about male privilege on the way.
None of those questions are raised in the English folk song on which the film is based. The Unquiet Grave goes back to at least the 14th century and has most of the elements we see on screen – a dead woman and a grieving husband by her graveside unable to let the dead woman go, and wishing for one more kiss from his beloved. She speaks to him from the grave – “You crave one kiss from my clay cold lips/But my breath is earthy strong”. Don’t, in other words. What the song doesn’t feature is a literal resurrection, though clearly a corpse speaking from the grave is alive, if only in a poetic sense.
The two stars, Ware and co-writer Nyland, and director (and co-writer) Terence Krey all worked together on the horror tinged comedy series Graves, which was made for the internet and came in at about six to eight minutes an episode. There’s no comedy here, and the running time is hardly marathon length, at 75 minutes, but it’s long haul in comparison, all have adapted to the shift in length. This film is long enough to make its point and not so long that you start to get impatient for the ending. Leave them wanting more.
It is artful, bare-bones film-making. Him and her and a small crew, at a graveside, in the woods, in a car, back at his place, in the garden, just a handful of locations, no attention-seeking stuff from the cameraman, sound recordist, make-up or costume crew – like a folk song sung a cappella, maybe, if you’re being fanciful – which throws all the emphasis on the story itself. When it’s necessary for a loremeister to become involved (you know, the cobwebby old dude who has a creaking medieval tome full of woodcuts of horned creatures), it’s done via a phone call. We don’t hear him/her speak. Economical, sufficient.
Because it’s so stark, so lacking in special effects, in the central section, where Jamie has conjured his wife back to life, using a blindfold, some wine, a bundle of smoking twigs and a knife, the question raises itself – is it really her, Julia, or is Ava pretending to be her own dead sister, to satisfy Jamie, or to preserve herself? Are we watching a supernatural horror film or a story about grief and delusion and a man coercing a woman into doing things she doesn’t want to do?
And assuming Jamie has actually brought Julia back to life, did anyone ask Julia if that’s what she wanted?
As in the folk song, where the corpse essentially chides the silly lover, pointing out that death comes soon enough and life is for the living, a critique of self-pity is what’s really in play, with Ware particularly effective as the slightly nerdy and very needy Jamie, while Nyland gets two roles, as the cool, attitudinal Ava and as Julia, Jamie’s warmer, more domesticated dead wife.
As horror films go it isn’t very horror-full, and in fact once it’s got its supernatural moment out of the way early on, it more or less works through the consequences using a plausible, realistic logic. What it is, though, and surely this was the intention, is very, very creepy.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021