Scarebnb: Grave Secrets (1989)

Matty books Donald P. Borchers’ spookshow for an evening and finds it an entertaining if uneven experience.

There’s some neat stuff in GRAVE SECRETS. Built from a tried and tested premise, this horror flick is buoyed by a pleasingly simple story. To wit: a weary parapsychologist (Paul Le Mat) is recruited by a terrified landlady (Renée Soutendijk) to investigate the increasingly malevolent disturbances at her countryside B&B. Within this solid haunted house set-up, there’s a nice sense of mystery as to what the spectre is and how it connects to Soutendijk — though the complete surprise of it is blown by a preface that makes it very clear that Soutendijk, who submits an excellent, convincingly harried performance, is hiding something. Donald P. Borchers’ direction is strong. His first film as director after producing the likes of Children of the Corn (1984), Vamp (1986), and Two Moon Junction (1988), Borchers has a good feel for atmosphere and puts on the frighteners with a fair amount of style. Jamie Thompson’s photography boasts a suitably macabre sheen, and the film’s score (by Borchers regular Jonathan Elias) is wonderfully ominous and full of LOUD BLASTS that work well with the cattle prod shocks. However, Grave Secrets is a snack rather than a complete meal. It’s the sort of picture best experienced in bite-sized chunks, skipping to this bit, fast forwarding to that bit etc. 

To keep with the food analogy for a second, Grave Secrets’ ingredients are tasty on their own but messy and claggy when mixed together. The balance is all off; it’s as if Borchers has veered from the recipe and gone rogue with the spices. For instance, as mood-driven and as effectively gloomy as his helmsmanship is, passages of Grave Secrets cry for a lighter, less oppressive touch — namely, the relationship between Le Mat and Soutendijk which evolves from mistrust to care and, ultimately, romance. Instead, it just happens. That said, these flaws can be traced to the wonky script. Two prominent characters (the two played by the forever excellent David Warner and punk rock hero Lee Ving) would have benefited from better development, as opposed to being wedged in purely to facilitate a pair of (admittedly pretty fun) set pieces. There’s a weird clash of tones, too. On one hand, Grave Secrets wants to be a serious and emotionally gruelling nerve-racker, its plot incorporating such harrowing themes as incest, child abuse, and infanticide. But then, on the other, there are hysterically funny — God forgive me — ‘so bad they’re brilliant’ sequences centred around floating eggs, a poltergeist giving a shoulder massage, a ghost car, and a few other inherently silly moments rendered even sillier by Le Mat’s sleepwalking turn and near contemptible non-selling. Still, at least Grave Secrets ain’t boring, and the headless spirit/zombie make-up FX in the film’s final stretch exudes an enjoyable air of ghoulish, EC-tinged ceremony. The rest of the gore, alas, was cut by the MPAA, who initially slapped Grave Secrets with an X-rating much to Borchers’ chagrin.    

Also known as ‘Secret Screams’, Grave Secrets hit video on either side of the Atlantic via Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment in mid 1990, whereupon it did poor business before vanishing into obscurity. As Borchers told My Blog of Interviews in 2017:

“I was trying to replicate the success that Paul Bartel had by financing and owning his own movie.  So, like Paul, I wanted to produce, direct and own my own film.  In real estate they say the three most important things are location, location, location.  Elliot Slutzky taught me that in the movie business the three most important things are timing, timing, timing.  Grave Secrets hit a collapsing independent home video market too late.”

USA ● 1989 ● Horror ● 85mins

Paul Le Mat, Renée Soutendijk, David Warner, Lee Ving ● Dir. Donald P. BorchersWri. Jeffrey Polman and Lenore Wright, from a story by Jeffrey Polman

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