Book. Cover. Judgment. Fail. (There ya go, bloggies, that's all the Internet lingo I'm going to toss about today.) Point being that if you, like me, took one look at the cover for The Shadow Within and passed it over, thinking it was another cheap-CGI, straight-to-DVD The Grudge knock-off, you'd be excused. You'd also be wrong. Because even though this release has what it takes to make your eyes slide right past it as you scan the shelves, it's actually a thoughtful, intermittently unnerving period piece taking a weird look a familial loss. And despite odd stage-y bits here and there, and a little bit of CGI that should have been left to the imagination, The Shadow Within is worth your jaded-horror-time.
Set in France during the Second World War, Shadow starts us off with disorientation - a naked woman seemingly drowning in endless depths - before dragging out a stark white hospital/birth scene, a scene that starts out feeling so familiar it took me three tries to make it past in order to give the movie a chance. I'm glad I did, since then we find a single woman (her husband is off fighting the war) dealing with the towns' children lost to diphtheria. At one boy's wake, she forces her only surviving son's head (his twin was lost a childbirth) down into the casket, for a long time, coming nearly eye-to-eye with this dead boy, surrounded by apples. The scene sets up Shadow's typical mis-en-scene; uncomfortable, mildly, quizzically, disturbing situations, with takes holding too long, and little to relieve the tension. Clearly, the movie contains some horrific elements, occasionally verging into the territory of that other J-Horror, Ringu, but more time and effort is subtly spent examining what it means for a mother to lose a child, and for a boy to lose a sibling.
What it means, thankfully for viewers, is more creepy death. Unfortunately, when the time comes for special effects to deliver jolts of salvation, the CGI doesn't live up to the task. It's not even really even the fault of the CGI - scenes of clawed, shadowy hands creeping across the ceiling probably should never translate to the screen, it simply shatters one's suspension of disbelief. These scenes are of the kind that would work wonderfully in a Victorian horror story (Shadow actually comes across as an update to the Victorian tradition, with black, soulless eyes). To the film's credit, even when such groan-worthy phantoms appear, the weight of the story, and performances from Laurence Belcher as young Maurice and Hayley J Williams as the mom, manage to keep the film anchored.
Though CGI shadows may creep, they do so with style. For a low-budget feature, Shadow packs tons of style, recreating a 1940s atmosphere with ease, while tossing about a number of startlingly beautiful shots. Beauty isn't exactly a substitute for terror, but it's a nice reward for those who've sat through countless hours of artless bottom-shelf junk. I'll take a good-looking movie with intelligence over one filled with cheap jump-scares any day. Yet, if you really need to feel that chill you'll be a little disappointed. While Shadow is smart and deep and full of dread, you'll find the relief provided by a good scare instead comes from struggling to stick with the movie every time the shadow itself appears. Despite that challenge, Shadow represents a nice, creepy change of pace from the same old stuff.