Grief is, despite being one of the most painful emotions in the spectrum, a sign of something good. It means that you cared for something so deeply that its loss is painful to you, and ultimately, I think that to feel something like that is beautiful. In time, grief slowly gestates into something not quite as sharp, something that rather than feeling like razors laying us open instead feels like an old break in your arm on a rainy day; a dull ache, a reminder of a past pain, but a reminder of how far we’ve come. On occasion, however, grief can curdle into something rancid, a rotten stew brewing inside of us and dragging us down. Instead of appreciating the fact that we had something good in our lives we are consumed with misery and the lost loved one has become not a source of good feelings and warm memories but instead a source of agony. And sometimes this inner blackness can lead us to do horrible, horrible things. Light spoilers ahead!
Terence Krey’s An Unquiet Grave is the newest entry in a long line of works of horror that deal with grief as horror. Whether it’s W.W. Jacobs short story “The Monkey’s Paw” or Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, grief is a potent source for storytellers. An Unquiet Grave deftly explores this hell we find ourselves in by telling the story of Jamie and Ava, two people dealing with the loss of Ava’s sister Julia who was Jamie’s wife. They’ve come up with a way to resurrect Julia through an unspecified ritual, but once it’s completed, they realize they haven’t gotten exactly what they were hoping for. Or, more specifically, what Ava was hoping for, as Julia’s soul is transferred into her body without her permission.
This might sound like a path well-trod and a tad bit unoriginal but believe me, it’s anything but predictable. Krey, who cowrote the script with star of the film Christine Nyland, keeps the film almost too non-horrific and instead gives us a film that that is a subdued depiction of something horrible. That is not to say this movie isn’t frightening: it’s deeply upsetting. But instead of relying on the visually monstrous to convey a feeling of horror, Krey and Nyland instead focus on the reaction of the characters to convey that feeling. What we see is two people coming to grips (or trying to anyway) with the reality that they have created. But unlike the horror in Pet Semetary that comes from Louis Creed’s justified shock at losing a child in such a violent manner, An Unquiet Grave takes a long hard look at the aftermath of a decision to bring a loved one back. Julia may not be a murderous imp, but she is not exactly thrilled at being brought back from the dead, nor is she thrilled to suddenly be inhabiting the body of her sister. There’s a vague touch of body horror in this film, with Julia remarking about how she can feel her skin on her, like she’s wearing a suit that’s too heavy, but she can’t take off. That alone, a feeling of claustrophobia within a body, is existentially terrifying. Also, it’s her sisters’ body she’s now in. The implications of all of that are more than enough to make this film as upsetting as any film with a monster or ghost or any other spooky creature.
Aside from viewing the film as a narrative about literal death, I think the film could also be seen as an allegory for finding oneself in a new relationship too soon after a bad breakup. I’m not saying that a breakup is nearly as bad losing a loved one. I’m more talking about the sense that something you had is over and done with, and you have to move on, but you can’t. I think most of us as adults have all entered into relationships, we weren’t a hundred percent on just so we could get over the pain of a prior relationship ending, and there’s a lot of that in this film. It’s not clear how close Jamie and Ava were before Julia’s death, but it’s easy to imagine he only approached her about resurrecting Julia because he needed a host for her soul, much in the way one can start dating someone just to fill a vacuum in one’s life after a breakup. After Julia is brought back, it’s clear that Jamie is kind of creeped out by the whole thing and not really all that comfortable with the situation, but he misses her so much he just keeps pushing forward. Again, there is a parallel here with starting a relationship before you’re over an ex and kind of forcing your new partner into that role, even though you know what you’re doing is absolutely wrong. Jamie’s path takes him deeper and deeper into a situation he’s becoming more and more unsettled by, and even though he knows that something even more horrible is coming down the pipeline he is unable to extract himself from it. That’s a very relatable scenario for a lot of people, one that doesn’t at all rely on the dead coming back to life or weird demons coming to take their toll.
Nyland and co-star Jacob A. Ware are more than competent when it comes to shouldering the weight of an entire movie. Both portray grieving relatives almost flawlessly, with each having an additional challenge for their roles. Nyland eventually portrays an entirely different character and does so seemingly without effort. She slips from the character of Ava to Julia as one changes a shirt. And her depiction of a woman who realizes that not only is she dead and returned but returned in the body of her sister is how I imagine it would play out in real life. She has this restrained sense of disbelief that this is all happening, and the mix of revulsion and sadness she’s selling is perfect. Ware, to his credit, excels at playing a grieving husband who’s not forthcoming about what his actual plans are for resurrecting his wife. He’s entirely sympathetic in that his grief is clearly genuine, and his moral distress is also entirely believable. When things begin to unravel, he’s more pathetic than unlikeable, which makes things even more upsetting. His pain over his wife isn’t as fleshed out as say the character of Louis Creed, but I think he more than makes up for it with the angst he faces over what he does to his sister-in-law and how he reacts to his wife being in her body.
Unmanaged grief can be a ravenous thing that never lets us heal, and it can guide us into some very dark places, turning love into selfishness and obsession. An Unquiet Grave is a restrained and poignant look at what people will do in order to get one more moment with a loved one, and the horrid possibilities they will look past. Doing anything for love isn’t necessarily a bad thing we can do, but An Unquiet Grave shows us that it can most certainly be one of the worst things we can do.