I knew I was going to love An Unquiet Grave from the opening scene. It perfectly prepares the viewer for the experience to follow: two people, a man, and a woman meet at the grave of a woman named Julie. From their conversation, we know they haven’t seen each other in a long time and that Julie was important to both of them. The man proposes something to the woman, who’s reluctant to agree to it, but is willing to hear him out. The final moment of the scene puts the pieces into place—the woman asks the man if he really can “bring her back.” He says “yes.” Cut to black. Roll the titles.
This is incredibly good storytelling. It’s calm yet tense. It’s sparse but tells us everything we need to know. It’s one of the best opening scenes to a horror film that I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m happy to say that An Unquiet Grave—co-written by director Terence Krey and star Christine Nyland—delivers on its beginning promise throughout.
The story, which you may have picked up already, follows widower Jamie as he attempts to resurrect his dead wife with the help of her sister Ava. As the consequences of their amateur necromancy come to light, Ava soon realizes that Jamie isn’t telling her everything, and Jamie realizes all too late that he may have opened a door he can never close. Running at only seventy-five minutes in total, An Unquiet Grave walks the line between slow-burn and efficient thrills with a character-driven story about grief, trauma, and maybe not trusting a random ritual you heard from somebody you barely know.
Despite its short length, this film takes its time to let its darkness fill your senses. Director Krey’s take on the story is all dark forests, dimly lit cars, and deathly quiet houses in the dead of night. It doesn’t jump out at you like some films might but instead deals in atmospheric tension and creeping dread. Even the smallest break in its moodiness is a shock to the system, but the moments that aren’t outright horror never feel like buildup towards haunted-house scarefests. There are spirits, corpses, possessions, and hauntings galore, but they all take a backseat to the dynamic between the only two characters we ever see—Jacob A. Ware as Jamie and Christine Nyland as Ava.
Ware’s take on Jamie, a character who could have come across as a selfish villain-protagonist, is nothing short of masterful. Jamie may be hiding several things from Ava, but it never feels malicious or driven by greed. This man really, really misses his dead wife, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to undo his grief, even if it means keeping some very important information from his last remaining connection to her. There’s a desperation to his character arc that makes the viewer question whether they might follow in his footsteps if they were in his place. For her part, Nyland infuses Ava with hope and sadness, and when her trust in Jamie is broken, she undergoes a transformation in more ways than one. I don’t want to spoil what happens—though experienced horror fans will probably be able to guess—but the way Nyland and Ware handle the story’s every beat still feels fresh and compelling. Nyland, in particular, bridges the natural and unnatural in her performance, and some of her scenes in An Unquiet Grave‘s second half hit me hard at the emotional core. Give these two an award right now, they’re that good.
For a story about just two people, this film feels far larger than it is, and I have to credit the small but ridiculously talented crew for putting in a hell of a lot of work to give the story the visual and aural impact it needs to captivate and engage an audience. Hugo Lopez, the film’s composer, crafts a synthesizer score that elevates the unsettling atmosphere and never overwhelms the viewer, but still surrounds them in swirling dread. Daniel Fox’s cinematography and Ryan Blackwell’s visual effects take the dead of night and make it visible with long, wide shots and muted colors—even the few moments that take place while the sun is up feel awash in darkness. And while this film is primarily performance rather than outright horror, Beatrice Sniper gives the most obviously supernatural moments of the film weight with her subtle, yet terrifying, special effects work. No element of this movie is underdone, further proving that a good movie need not be held back by a low budget or a small crew if its creators have the passion and drive to put it all together.
An Unquiet Grave is an absolute gem of an independent horror movie. It takes the themes of loss that one might see in a much bigger studio release and condenses them into a short, enthralling, and heartbreaking feature film that left me absolutely breathless by its final shot. It’s beautiful to look at, listen to, and experience, thanks to an incredible combination of talents between the cast and crew. I can see great things in the future from Krey, Nyland, Ware, and everyone else involved in this production, as they’ve created something truly worth celebrating here. If this film doesn’t get a wide release, it’ll be a crime, because the first thing I’m going to do after finishing this article is tell all my friends how damn good this movie is. I loved it, and I promise you will too.
An Unquiet Grave streamed from Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, December 11-27, 2020.