Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Graveyard

Director: Michael Feifer
Writer:
Michael Hurst
Producer: Michael Feifer
Cast: Christopher Stewart, Lindsay Ballew, Trish Coren
Country: US
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener


In the prologue of The Graveyard, when six identikit teenagers in their mid-twenties sneak into a cemetery for a game of hide and seek (which they call ‘run for your life’ in an attempt to make it sound less juvenile), the person who is ‘it’ is chosen by putting names into a hat.

One gets the feeling that the screenplay for The Graveyard was created in a not dissimilar way: that a bunch of horror movie clichés were put on bits of paper and drawn one by one from a hat, then stapled together in the order they were picked - and that was called ‘the script.’

Because this really is a rubbish film. Even in the genre of teen slasher films where, you know, standards are not high and most of the audience is fairly undiscriminating, this is still rubbish enough to raise howls of mystified disapproval from the fans.

Despite the title and that prologue, most of the film is set in a ‘camp’. Now, the whole concept of ‘camp’ is something that those of us on the other side of the Atlantic find alien. It’s one of those things, like ‘senior prom’, which we only know from cinema and TV because there is no direct equivalent over here. The cultural and social context and connotations of ‘camp’ are missing. This place has a bunch of... dorms? chalets?... with bunk beds. It appears to be a functioning camp from outside, kept quite clean and tidy, but there is a scene where a girl goes into a shower (in some sort of separate shower block?) and is grossed out by how disgusting this is. What does that mean? Does it play on a belief that camp showers are always disgusting or is it meant to indicate that this is a horrible, low quality camp (belied by other locations) or that this camp is in disrepair (which it apparently is not)?

Or it could be - and this seems more likely, given what the rest of the movie is like - that the director just wanted the scene to be like that and gave no thought as to whether it made any sense.

Let’s go back to, as Lurcio used to say: the prologue.

A guy called Eric is picked to count to twenty which, for some reason, he must do behind the closed-but-not-locked gates of a particular tomb/mausoleum. The others run off to hide behind various gravestones in this remarkably well-lit cemetery.

As Eric counts, a figure in a mask appears, unseen by him, further back inside the tomb. Then the same figure appears (impossibly) in front of the gates and waves a large knife at the terrified Eric but makes no attempt to open the gates. Then the figure disappears. Eric runs off and the figures reappears, chasing him, pausing only to stab one of the girls. Eric runs and runs and...

...runs straight into the cemetery gates where he impales himself on a couple of bent bars. Which is pretty difficult to do and unlikely to be instantly fatal. But it is. His friends gather round in disbelief, including the girl who was ‘stabbed’ and the masked maniac who was actually a seventh identikit twenty-something teenager. The whole thing was a prank, you see.

Oh... you guys!

Five years later, the teenagers are closer to the actors’ rather obvious real ages. The one who was dressed up is called Billy and he has spent the past five years in prison for manslaughter while all the rest apparently got off scott-free despite being just as culpable. Billy is granted either bail or parole; the terms are used interchangeably as if they are exact synonyms, which I don’t think they are.

Now, where would be the best place for Billy to go when he comes out of prison? That’s right: straight back to the place where he was accidentally responsible for the death of one of his friends. The girl who gets him out of clink and the other five have all agreed to go back to the camp where they were staying when Eric died. Because they were at a camp, apparently, even though this is not mentioned in the prologue. And this is one of those camps that has a large cemetery next to it. Again with the cultural context: is this normal?

Although the camp is quite large, there will only be the six of them staying there. except that one of the blokes has brought along his new girlfriend who is only distinguishable from the other female characters by virtue of having a strange accent. Perhaps she’s meant to be South American or something. There is also the young man who runs the place as cook/handyman, who is indistinguishable from any of the other male characters.

You see, there are two huge problems with The Graveyard. One is that the plot, despite being a stack of clichés, makes not a lick of sense and blatantly contradicts itself in places. The other is that the characters are completely characterless and utterly indistinguishable. All the blokes are arseholes or pricks to some degree and all the girls are sluts or prickteases. I honestly couldn’t even tell you what any of the character names are except for Billy and Eric - and one of them dies before the opening credits.

The male characters are slightly less indistinguishable than the girls because the one who brought his girlfriend along is constantly boasting about his sexual prowess. The other one - the one who isn’t Billy, isn’t the cook/handyman and doesn’t boast about sex - is described by some of the others as a nerd but exhibits no nerdlike characteristics whatsoever apart from owning a laptop computer.

The women - well, the blonde one seems to be more slutty than the others but seriously, that’s it. Oh, and the girlfriend has a funny accent. Other than that, it could be the same actress and occasional split-screen effects for all the difference there is between the characters. Whatever they’re called.

As well as the camp, with its chalets/dorms and some sort of communal dining hall/bar seen in one brief scene, there is also plenty of woodland and a slightly ramshackle (from the outside), clean and tidy (on the inside) ‘boathouse’ by a lake which is actually a sort of summerhouse with tables and chairs and certainly completely devoid of boats. Oh, and there’s that cemetery. We are given absolutely no clue as to the spatial relationship between any of these locations and I suspect that’s because the director has no clue about it either. We also don’t know where this camp is situated although quite late in the film we’re told it’s ten miles from the nearest town.

So they all pitch up in their big cars and the idea is that Billy will “find closure” and “confront his demons” or some such bollocks but really, why would the parole board (who are told the plan) release someone convicted of manslaughter, knowing that he was going to immediately return to the scene of the crime along with all his accomplices? In terms of narrative bollocks, this is right up there with Camp Blood 2 and its belief that a murderer would be let out of prison to go and make a film about their murders. The Graveyard reminded me very much of Camp Blood and its sequel. The production values are higher but the story is just as nonsensical.

Now, I’d like to tell you who gets killed and in what order but because I don’t know the characters’ names and I can’t even describe them to you in any way that would differentiate them, I can’t do this. I’m not even sure if all the ones who aren’t in the final scene do actually get killed, especially as some of the characters who are very definitely and obviously killed subsequently appear, miraculously healed. One of them ironically ends up impaled on exactly the same broken railings where Eric died (I can’t help thinking that something should have been done about those five years ago, given how dangerous they obviously were) but not only does he survive, he somehow extricates himself (off screen) and is then able to run and jump and fight just like any healthy young guy.

One thing that a film like this could have going for it, which might negate the need for memorable characters or a coherent plot, is plenty of gore. But The Graveyard skimps on the gore (it skimps on the graveyard too) and shows us very little. There is one scene during the first night at the camp - or at least, during the hours of darkness, as this film has a completely cavalier attitude to things like night and day - when a person we haven’t seen before is brutally (but not graphically) murdered. Tied to a chair and beaten by the maniac in the mask, his howls of pain are mistaken by two of the girls for the sound of a dangerous animal.

But who is this guy? As the characters are so interchangeable, I couldn’t work out who he was and when all four men turned up together in a subsequent scene, I was thoroughly confused. Surely it must be one of them.

Well, it turns out no. This is the real cook/handyman at the camp being murdered by the maniac who subsequently impersonates him (who turns out to be Eric’s brother, who didn’t die in a house fire with their parents as believed - oh yes, like that really spoils this crappy movie for you). But when a by-the-book sheriff turns up later, he talks about a body found a couple of days previously in the woods, missing its hands and head. This is later identified as being the cook/handyman and Billy, who has been arrested, is freed because a call to the prison confirms that he was still incarcerated two days ago.

But wait, how could this cook who was murdered before anyone arrived at the camp also be the cook whose screams scared the girls after they arrived at the camp? This is just one of many logical and temporal inconsistencies. There are some comments on the Inaccurate Movie Database from people who say that there are scenes where Eric’s brother is in one place pretending to be the cook and in another place being the masked maniac at the same time. That may well be true but wild horses wouldn’t make me sit through this film again to check. The whole thing is so riddled with arbitrary ideas that contradict other parts of the film that one more or less really doesn’t matter.

Billy, who has been brooding and intense, turns into another arsehole halfway through, revealing that the whole intense thing was an act designed to lead up to pretending to be a knife-wielding maniac in a practical joke on one of the other guys. Wait, hang on. Wasn’t that exactly the sort of behaviour that led to the unpleasant death of one of your friends and got you banged up inside for five years? Have you learned nothing?

The first death is the girlfriend with the weird accent, strangled in the showers (despite the maniac’s proclivity for carrying a large knife) but when she goes missing there is no indication of how anyone knows she’s missing. It’s just stated that She Is Missing and they immediately split into two groups to search the (surprisingly well-lit) woods. Nobody actually searches any of the numerous buildings.

While in the woods, another woman turns up who is not one of the ones we’ve already seen but we only know this from the dialogue because she looks and acts the same. She says that one of the other women is actually a lesbian and she is her jealous girlfriend. This sexual revelation has no relevance whatsoever and the new girl then wanders off and gets killed, making her possibly the most redundant character I’ve seen in a horror film this year. It’s also not clear why bonkers Eric’s brother kills her or the weird-accent girlfriend as neither had any connection with his brother’s death.

A couple of the women visit Eric’s grave which is, incredibly, in that very same cemetery. They find that it is... open! But not open like a grave that has been dug up so somebody can steal the body. It’s actually a really neat, rectangular hole so it’s a grave that never had a body or coffin in it. That’s what happens when you employ a production designer who doesn’t know the difference between an ‘open grave’ and an ‘empty grave’ (or simply hasn’t read the script). Later, Eric’s brother is shot and falls into this grave (oh the irony) but subsequent dialogue indicates that the body has not been found. Given that Billy ‘died’ on the broken railings but later walked and talked and the sheriff was clearly killed but is fine in the final scene, we must presume that Eric’s brother also simply got up and walked away.

I’ve seen zombie movies with fewer walking dead people than this.

The Graveyard is just awful. It’s staggeringly dull and boring because it’s basically a bunch of identical young people we neither know nor care about doing random, clichéed things for no obvious reason without any lasting effect. At one point a character actually says the line, “Cliché cliché cliché!” and I think that’s a coded message from the scriptwriter, crying for help and letting us know that this isn’t really his fault.

Because this is a Michael Hurst script and I know for a fact that Mike Hurst could write something better than this in his sleep. There must be some other factor: perhaps he had to write the whole thing in an afternoon or perhaps he had to do a second draft based on nonsensical notes from the director or maybe he handed in a workable script and the whole thing was ruined during production. Yet Mike has kept his name on the thing (unlike the considerably superior Are You Scared) and that’s odd because he’s a jobbing writer-director and I wouldn’t have thought that being visibly attached to crap like this would help his career.

Who else has this film on their CV as a guilty secret? The cast includes Christopher Stewart, Lindsay Ballew, Trish Coren (Boo, Headless Horseman), Eva Derrek (Jacqueline Hyde, The Slaughter, Live Evil), Brett Donowho, James Gallinger, Sam Bologna (Unidentified, Terminal Island), Patrick Scott Lewis (Zodiac, Voodoo Curse: The Giddeh), Leif Lillehagen, Erin Lokitz (Robert Kurtzman’s Buried Alive), Markus Potter, Mark Salling (Children of the Corn IV) and Natalie Denise Sperl (Succubus: Hell Bent). I’ve listed them all because I’ve no idea who plays whom.

To be fair, it dawned on me halfway through that this film, despite appearing on the surface to be the most appallingly banal and unoriginal movie imaginable, actually offered something unique and different. Which is: there is no Token Black Guy. Every character is completely white. It doesn’t really mean anything but TBGs are the industry standard and this is such an off-the-shelf plot with absolutely nothing new or clever or original or interesting to say that it seems bizarre when it doesn’t follow this convention.

Even the killer isn’t memorable. He wears a sort of coverall with a hood tied round his face - Christ, it looks like a kagool - and his mask, when seen in occasional close-up, seems to be made from pieces of skin sewn together but that’s not relevant or alluded to in any way.

Released in the States in 2006 but only surfacing in the UK two years later, The Graveyard was the second feature directed by Michael Feifer, whose extensive experience as a producer of low-budget DTV pictures includes Witchcraft V, VI, VII, VIII and IX. From 2000’s A Crack in the Floor onwards he started doubling up as 1st AD and his directorial debut was Lethal Eviction, a thriller written by Leeches scripter Gary Barkin. In the couple of years since he made The Graveyard, Feifer has directed eight films including three based on infamous true-life serial killers, a non-horror comedy about a blogger, Grim Reaper (also written by Mike Hurst) and most recently an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 'Dracula’s Guest' starring Andrew Bryniarski from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. I haven’t seen any of these - I sincerely hope he’s got better at making films as he goes along.

What I can’t understand is why the normally reliable Revolver would pick up this piece of junk - unless it came as some sort of package with their two other Feifer-Hurst collaborations, Are You Scared (directed by Mike’s brother Andy) and The Butcher (directed by Mike himself). Since they started sending me screeners, I have been consistently impressed with Revolver’s choice of titles, from Kiltro to The Killing Floor. Some, like The Last Winter, were truly magnificent; some, like Wrestlemaniac, were great fun. The Graveyard is just lousy and I really can’t see how even the most undiscriminating slasher fan (a breed of movie fanatic not exactly renowned for their critical values) could enjoy this film.

Cinematographer Hank Baumert Jr lit this and several of Feifer’s other pictures while editor Christopher Roth has a hefty CV which includes Wizards of the Demon Sword, Steel and Lace, Return of the Living Dead 3, Leprechaun 1 and 2, The Dentist 1 and 2, Hatchet and Ghouls. Richard Redlefsen, who supplied the prosthetic make-up effects, has worked on the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Indiana Jones 4 and various CSI episodes and is now doing stuff on the Star Trek prequel.

I don’t know who is to blame for The Graveyard turning out the way it has done but this is so boring, so full of holes and generally so unwatchable that one of two things seems certain. Either somebody with no idea about film-making exercised complete control over this or several people with genuine ideas about film-making pulled it in different directions. Whichever, the result is a mess which can’t be recommended in any way for anyone.

One final note which I think perfectly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with The Graveyard: despite all the night-time scenes being well-lit, there are some cutaways to a crescent Moon. I mean, you could at least try and justify the brightness with a full Moon, but no...

MJS rating: D
review originally posted 5th May 2008

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