James Caviezel, Claudia Karvan
(Arclight Films; US DVD: 4 Aug 2009; UK DVD: 4 Aug 2009)
The rap against remakes is simple - it’s been done before…and usually better. So there’s no need to do it again, right? Sure, Hollywood currently tries to sidestep such suggestions by using words like “reimagining”, but the truth is, the original source material for most revamps is better, more arresting, and more interesting than their updated counterpart. This is especially true of Nature’s Grave. A virtual shot for shot redo of the amazing 1978 Australian thriller Long Weekend, this story of man vs. nature was one of the most disturbing, unsettling fright films of the last three decades. In its new, “improved” version, also scripted by Weekend scribe Everett De Roche, we have the same themes of environmentalism, ecology, and the eventual retaliation of a pissed-off animal populace. Sadly, the casting choices and name behind the lens all but sinks this redux’s potential success. After all, it was already done before…and much, much better.
Peter and Carla are a married couple who’ve been through a rather rough patch, relationship-wise. He’s apparently just broken off an ongoing affair, while she’s had an abortion, the result of her own secret sexual indiscretions. Hoping a long weekend by the sea will rekindle their love, they pack up the Range Rover and head out to parts of Australia unknown. Hoping to eventually meet some friends at a remote campsite, the pair gets lost almost immediately. After spending a night in the car, they eventually reach their destination. Right off the bat, things do not go well for our duo. She hates the wilderness and he’s too busy playing macho outdoorsman to care. Then odd things start happening. Animals start attacking. A strange shape in the water eerily floats by. Nights are filled with peculiar noises. Days are filled with confrontations and fear. Before long, both want to leave this long weekend away from the city. But nature has other ideas about what to do with these two.
Nature’s Grave violates one of the first rules of remakes - if you’re not going to be as good, or try to improve on, what came before, you really shouldn’t bother. In the 1978 original, a menacing John Hargreaves drove a dowdy Briony Behets to the point of hysterics with his flailing false bravado and cruel carelessness. While neither actor was Shakespearean in quality, the appeared real and authentic, looking like typical Australians about to have the worst extended holiday ever. In this unnecessary update, James Caviezel proves conclusively that playing Jesus Christ convincingly is his sole cinematic quality. He is bad here - slipping in and out of accents, either inert or frenzied in how he approaches a particular scene. Perhaps Urban Legend director Jamie Blanks thought that making Peter as unstable as the surrounding wilderness was a wise idea. Or maybe, Caviezel is just that limited of a performer. He sure does love walking around shirtless, however.
Whatever the case, we never take Peter’s side here. We never feel he’s been slighted or hurt. When he is attacked by an eagle, or threatened by an unknown object in the water, we don’t hope for his safety. Instead, we pray for his death. In the original film, both characters were seen as victims first, possible provocateurs second. But with Blanks desire to tweak everything about Long Weekend for his own motives, our hero goes from complicated to criminal to just plain crazy, while Claudia Karvan’s Carla is part scream queen, part shrew. It’s a one note turn - constantly looking at her husband as a threat, this clearly troubled woman wants very little to do with anything except herself. We never really connect with her inner pain, fail to see why she would stay with this man after the history (and personal horrors) she’s encountered. And yet unlike Long Weekend, which seemed to suggest something significant between the couple, Blanks contains them within a recognizable horror/thriller mold.
As for the director himself, he fails a few of the fright flick basics. He drains all the tension out of the set-up by steering his cast into nearly comic areas of aggression. He telegraphs his dread, offering one too many POV shots of the couple setting up camp. His location is lovely, almost breathtaking in its beauty, and yet there are few extended shots which allow us to feel the scope of Peter and Carla’s isolation. We always feel like our couple is sitting somewhere in an Australian National Park, not some vast unholy wilderness. Granted, toward the end, when bodies begin to pop up and death has to be dealt with, Blanks shows why he was brought onto the project. The ending specifically amplifies the nastiness of the original. But Blanks stumbles more than he succeeds. It’s as if he was so determined to be reverential that he forgot about the reinvention.
Indeed, that’s Nature’s Grave‘s biggest problem - if you seen Long Weekend, you’ve seen this film. Nothing Blanks or Caviezel or Karvan bring to the update expands on our appreciation or enjoyment of the first film, and since writer Everett De Roche has kept each and every original plot point intact, there are no new surprises or twists. There will be those that argue that the real intention of this remake is to give fans that may have missed the movie the first time around another opportunity to see it, only this time in a “new and improved” setting. And it has been 31 years since the late Colin Eggleston unleashed his vision on a mostly uncaring world. But again, mere repetition is not going to earn you an entertainment excuses. You will live - and die - by how faithful you are to the source, or how fresh you approach is. Sadly, Nature’s Grave is neither. It wants to update the whole man vs. nature dynamic for a post-millennial age. Instead, it further fuels the always dicey original vs. remake debate.