As Open the Coffin opens a team of tomb robbers race down a corridor as green vines pursue them. They outrun them and reach the tomb’s main chamber only to find a corpse that looks way too fresh to have been dead for a thousand or so years. And some less fresh-looking but very lively guardian corpses.
Captain Shen (Han Dong, Water Monster 2: Blackwood) wakes from a nightmare to find he’s been called out to investigate a murder. A local tomb robber has been found apparently scared to death while performing a ritual. Things really get strange when, after the autopsy is performed the coroner, Han Bing (Wang Zhen, Wisher), finds a hand-shaped fungus growing out of the victim’s mouth.
The trailer for Open the Coffin certainly looked good, and while I’ve seen quite a few Chinese kaiju films, I haven’t seen that many Chinese horror films. Older films from pre-annexation Hong Kong yes, but not from the mainland so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Director Cheng Siyi and writers Huang Mengmeng and Huan Niu who also co-wrote Snake 3: Dinosaur vs. Python get things started in a familiar enough manner with a fast-paced and creepy intro before settling into the film’s main story.
As Open the Coffin’s plot begins to unravel it becomes clear that the tomb robbers we saw in the opening didn’t die in the tomb after all. But they certainly are dying off quickly, and under strange circumstances now. A local antique dealer named Lin (Jiang Chao, Yunnan Insect Valley, Doomsday) convinces Shen that this is the work of Ghost Hand, the same person or gang that was responsible for the death of his wife and child as well as Shen’s mentor.
The result is a police procedural with supernatural trappings involving shaman, exorcism rituals, and even a seemingly dead man rising from his coffin. The idea seems to be to keep the viewer guessing as to whether there is some kind of curse at work or if there is a rational explanation for it all. And then, at the start of the last act, Open The Coffin simply has one of the characters tell us.
Despite a couple of last-minute twists Open the Coffin is a pretty big disappointment, and not just because I was expecting an actual horror movie. Apart from a couple of fights, it’s almost all talk and there’s not really a lot of detective work to bolster the police story. Much of it revolves around Shen getting hunches that might as well be visions the way they come out of nowhere and then running off to act on them. Making us privy to his thoughts at times doesn’t make it any clearer where he gets them from either.
The film’s horror elements are handled much better with effective makeup for the living dead, several atmospheric scenes and a couple of effective jump scares. Having it all turned into a bland case of revenge killings is a major letdown as well as a cheat. I don’t know why distributors insist on pulling this kind of stunt. Do they really think horror fans will be happy paying money to see a mystery?
In fairness, I can’t read Chinese, but the little bit of English and the imagery in the trailer are all horror-related. If the trailer had been cut to present Open The Coffin as a mystery with a possible supernatural resolution that would be OK. But instead, it’s all zombies, curses, and spooky camera angles.
Open the Coffin is available free to watch on Youku’s YouTube channel. Knowing what you’re getting ahead of time you might like it more than I did, but I have my doubts. As always, FilmTagger has some alternatives.