Nature’s Grave

ON

Now available on DVD

Cast:

James Caviezel as Peter

Claudia Karvan as Carla

Directed by Jamie Blanks

Review:

When the bird population of Bodega Bay abruptly decided to deliver death from above in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), it was left ambiguous as to what provoked the attacks of that film. But when filmmakers of the ’70s began to explore the ‘revenge of nature’ sub-genre, they married the rising ecological concerns of that decade (the first Earth Day celebration was held in 1970 and Gen-Xers will remember the famous ‘Crying Indian’ PSA, with its message to “Keep America Beautiful”) to their stories of wildlife run amok and of the environment fighting back against man. One of the more obscure eco-horror films of the ’70s, the 1978 Australian thriller Long Weekend, has now been remade by Urban Legend director Jamie Blanks as Nature’s Grave.

Working from a screenplay by Long Weekend‘s original writer Everett de Roche (Roche and Blanks previously collaborated on the well-received 2007 shocker Storm Warning), Nature’s Grave is reportedly a near word-for-word copy of the original. Having not seen the original, I can’t comment on how closely this hews to its predecessor but outside of the presence of cell phones and a navigation system in the protagonist’s vehicle, there’s nothing here that would’ve been out of place thirty years ago. The simple story follows a married couple (Jim Caviezel as Peter and Claudia Karvan as Carla) who are escaping to the woods for a camping weekend in the hopes of mending their fractured relationship – although given the seriousness of their issues, even a long weekend hardly seems like enough time for that kind of mending.

Before the two even arrive at their remote campsite, we see that Peter has no respect for the environment as he runs over a kangaroo and carelessly disposes of a lit cigarette. On their first morning at the site, he begins randomly chopping down a tree for no reason (for firewood, he says, but plenty of loose wood is surely lying around). And without Carla’s knowledge, he has even brought a spear gun and rifle on their trip with plans to get fresh meat to cook on their fire (even though we’re sure he’s never hunted in his life). Peter is impossibly arrogant, completely oblivious to what’s happening around him, and blind to the cocksure errors of his own ways. In comparison, nature hater Carla is at least conscious of the fact that they’re trespassing in an area where they don’t belong. And she’s the first to pick up on the fact that their surroundings are beginning to conspire against them. The signs of danger begin incrementally – ants invade their campsite, an eagle dive bombs Peter after one of its eggs finds its way into their campsite – but soon things are looking much more dire.

Blanks makes ample use of the Australian landscape – this is one of the more scenic horror films in recent memory – and the beauty of the environment makes an effective counterpoint to Peter and Carla’s increasingly desperate plight. While some might be expecting a more visceral experience, the fight that Peter and Carla have to face isn’t a head-on attack by wildlife (save for that one brief encounter with an eagle) but is instead more subtle, gradual, and psychological. I expect this may make for a film that’s simply too oblique for many viewers. Anyone hoping for an explanation behind this film’s events or for a larger threat to be revealed (although what could be a bigger threat than Nature Itself?) will be disappointed. Those attuned to the ambiguous narratives of ’70s fright films, however, might be more receptive to the quiet creepiness of Nature’s Grave.

In talking about The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953), critic Paul M. Jensen (author of The Men Who Made The Monsters) made the provocative argument that a seemingly unremarkable shot of a character tossing a cigarette into the lagoon pointed towards a reading of that film as a thinly veiled environmental tract. I couldn’t help but think of Jensen’s observation during Nature’s Grave as Peter unthinkingly invites nature’s wrath one cigarette butt and plastic bag at a time, carelessly disposing of his trash anywhere he pleases. Some might feel that Peter and Carla do too little to deserve their punishment but their transgressions against the environment do escalate and clearly Nature is not in a mood to be forgiving. When Nature pushes back, it pushes back hard.

Even though Caviezel and Karvan spend most of Nature’s Grave with their characters at each other’s throats, it’s a testimony to their skill as actors that their performances never become grating (exasperating, sometimes, but not grating). While this is a short film (88 minutes), Nature’s Grave would still be a real endurance test if Caviezel and Karvan hadn’t hit just the right tone of being able to show the anger that exists between this couple without alienating the audience. Peter and Carla may not be the most likeable pair but their interactions – even at their most ugly and acrimonious – come off as natural.

As a director, Blanks doesn’t bring much individual style to Nature’s Grave but he serves the material admirably – not letting visuals steal the show from the performances or the story. While he didn’t win much praise in hardcore horror circles with Urban Legend and Valentine, with Storm Warning and now Nature’s Grave, he’s developed into a genre director worth following. Unfortunately, thanks to some of the most unattractive box art I’ve ever seen and the “huh?” title of Nature’s Grave, this film will likely remain about as obscure an item to US audiences as the film it’s based on (I don’t know how the film was marketed elsewhere in the world but its US release severely lacks panache). In the end, it’s ironic that a film about environmental issues would prove to represent something of an endangered species itself – a low-key, slow building, adult-orientated horror film.