Friday, July 31, 2015

THE GRAVE (1996)

I used to make a regular practice of digging through late-night cable looking for good, obscure movies. The 1990s were boom years for cinema and with so many great productions it was easy for scores of top-notch flicks to fall through the cracks. I certainly found plenty. One of my all-time favorite cinemarchaeological discoveries from those days is a gem from 1996 called THE GRAVE.

The movie opens with a raspy-voiced old inmate in a shadowy jail-cell, passing the time by talking to a visitor (played by Keith David). "Ever hear the one about the grave?" It's one, he says, that's "guaranteed ta' chill yer shit," and he proceeds to unspool a fine bogey tale about a pair of Southern-fried idiots in a North Carolina prison who, hearing the story of a creepy old rich dude allegedly buried with his fortune, break out and undertake an outlaw odyssey to make off with the loot.

But nothing on their adventure will go as planned...

THE GRAVE was made by Josh and Jonas Pate, their first picture, and for what is, at heart, a somewhat old-fashioned Southern Gothic spook-story, it's utterly idiosyncratic. How many horror movies have you ever seen, for example, that featured an assortment of traditional gospel tunes on the soundtrack? The characters are an endlessly entertaining collection of rednecks and white-trash losers essayed by a killer cast--Gabrielle Anwar, Donal Logue, Josh Charles, Anthony Michael Hall, Craig Scheffer, Eric Roberts (who has an hilarious cameo) and on and on. The script, probably the movie's biggest asset, is steeped in a boiled-down version of common Southern vernacular that only rarely makes it to film--full of hysterical dialogue, there seems to be something funny and quotable packed into every other line.

THE GRAVE is a horror story though, one that becomes progressively darker as it unfolds, and its smart sense of humor follows, becoming appropriately grim as the lights go out but never entirely losing that trace of a twinkle in the eye--if you like such stories, you'll greet the last scene with an evil grin, if not a full-blast guffaw.

That such a great flick is a genre production is, as I see it, another feather in its cap. I'm a horror fan but for all the great cinema to come out of the '90s, the decade was a sparse one for horror. The genre as a whole seemed in a downward spiral, with only a handful of great productions raging against the dying of the darkness. This was definitely one of them.

Its genre, being so out-of-step with its times, may have even played a role in relegating it to obscurity. It made not a ripple when it first appeared and it seems to have become even more obscure as time has passed. Premium cable tends to repeat everything ad infinitum but even there, where I first discovered it, THE GRAVE was a rarity. I've never seen it aired anywhere after the '90s. It has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray.  I had trouble even finding an image from it to post with this article. It just fell through the cracks, which is particularly surprising considering the subsequent career paths of many of those involved.

In any event, a great little movie. I try, from time to time, to make some noise around the internet on its behalf.


[This particular bit of noise, I'll concede, may not do it any favors. I usually don't care for writing straight movie reviews--movies, as I see it, should be able to stand on their own and speak for themselves. I suspect when I re-read this one, it will end up sounding like I'm taking a brief essay worth of space to say "It's great!" But it is great, so what else can you say?]