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In terms of horror movies, The Shrine has a lot of elements that hearken back to seventies classics of the genre: human sacrifice, devil worship, remote villages populated with extra creepy, backwards locals, even a forest permanently shrouded in ominous fog. Eschewing the easy plot devices, cheap scares and casual cruelty of a lot of modern films, it aims more for a pervasive feeling of dread, and largely succeeds.
Carmen (Cindy Sampson) is a feisty journalist, who's been busted down to cub reporter status after writing an unspecified controversial story. Determined to get back in the big leagues, she shuns the humdrum assignment to investigate why bees are dying off in the Midwest, and instead convinces her boyfriend and photographer Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) and naïve young intern Sara (Meghan Heffern) to jet off to Poland to find out what happened to a missing hiker, Eric Taylor.
Tracing Eric's progress through his journal, they find themselves in the isolated Polish village of Kozki, where everyone makes their own clothes and gets by from farming, and they worship at a church presided over by black robed prelates that may or may not be Christian. The residents are standoffish, but leave the intrepid reporters alone, that is until they start walking toward the forest and the strangely persistent wall of fog that hangs there. Once they show an interest in the fog, and what's inside it, a half dozen goons show up to calmly suggest that they leave town. But Carmen is not to be dissuaded, even by the commonsense suggestions of Marcus and Sara. After pretending to leave the area, the trio circles back and investigates the fog. First, Sara recklessly steps in, despite the fact that it's too thick to see more than a few feet into. Then Carmen enters, searching for the missing intern. Both of them, at different times, stumble upon a large statue, life sized, of what appears to be a leering demon, holding a heart in its hands. Carmen walks around the statue, taking pictures. The head follows her, always leering.
After this, it starts to get really strange. A local girl, named Lidia (Julia Debowska) tells them that she knows where Eric Taylor is, and leads them to what looks like a shack, but is in reality the doorway to a hidden underground temple. Then she locks them in. Followed hard upon by black robed worshipers, visions of hideous monsters, uncomfortable looking masks with spikes where the eyes should be, imprisonment, escape, flight and demon possession. Someone also gets shot with a crossbow.
Director Jon Knautz isn't playing this for action, however. The various fistfights, etc are competently staged, but only as necessary to move forward the plot. The aim is dread, and he hits the mark. Much of the back story is only hinted at, and the ambiguity is tantalizing. We see things happening, and can guess at why, but the filmmakers are content to let us guess. There is a lot of dialogue in Polish, sans subtitles, a conscious decision on the filmmakers' part, which leaves the audience as in the dark as the characters we are watching. Concrete answers would only deplete the tension. And the tension is quite real. Joe Bob Briggs once said that the mark of a good horror film is that anyone can die at any time. That's certainly true of The Shrine. Those making bets on what one character would survive the film would likely lose their money. The filmmakers are also comfortable subverting what we think the film is about, and who the real villains are, all without ratcheting down the fear.
As in most horror films, the keys to success (aside from the required scares) are in creating a compelling story, and likeable characters. The Shrine has both. The pacing is deliberate, but we never get bored, and once things get going, events move forward at a steady pace. And the characters are great as well. Carmen might be too career oriented and self centered, but she's not just a cutout, rather a fleshed out human being. Many of us can see ourselves in her, and sympathize with her strong desire to succeed in her job, and even perhaps see ourselves making the same decisions. She's more of that dearly beloved yet frustrating friend, and this is certainly a breath of fresh air after the stale stereotypes of many horror film characters. All the technical aspects of the film are executed well, with the blood and gore effects being realistic and fun, while never stepping over the line into grotesquerie. The only criticism might be that the screenwriters might have made another pass or two over the dialogue, which at times can be a touch stilted, or a few beats off. This is mostly a problem in the early setup scenes, and once the group reaches Poland, fades into the background. Other than this, the film gets high marks, and should be appreciated by genre fans.
The Shrine isn't afraid to take a fresh look at familiar horror tropes and try something new. It isn't totally successful, but it does offer an hour and a half of tense, tightly plotted scenes that provide equal parts fun and fear. Highly recommended.
The video is 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks pretty good. It's a bit grainy and muddy at times, but this is not out of keeping with the mood of the film. Overall, the action is visible, and the shadows are thick but appropriately spooky.
The Audio is Dolby digital 5.1 channel, and does quite a good job. There is a lot of subtle whispering and eerie noises only half heard, and they are pulled off adroitly. The audience feels right up with the characters, in the middle of it. English subtitles are included, except for the portions spoken in Polish, as indicated above.
There are a few extras included on the disc. They are:
Coming in at 11:45, this featurette includes lots of behind the scenes footage and interviews with all the lead actors, writer / director Jon Knautz and producer / actor Trevor Matthews. There is plenty of interesting stuff here, but also some mild spoilers, so don't watch it first.
At just over a minute, this is a pretty good trailer that captures the sense of the film without giving anything away.
This is the most substantial extra included, featuring Jon Knautz, Trevor Matthews and composer Ryan Shore. (It's stated that Matthew Brulotte, the editor, is also in the room, but implied that he won't be talking. All the voices are too similar to tell.) All of these people have worked together previously, on short films as youths, and on the cult favorite Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. The commentary is informative and fun, and buoyed up by an easy camaraderie. They discuss how they came up with the twist of the film, and worked backwards writing the screenplay, as well as casting, music and special effects. The conversation is wide ranging, but is mostly pertinent to what is happening on the screen. The commentary definitely adds some value, and gives a good sense of how the project came together.
In many ways, The Shrine reminds us of the slow burn horror films of the seventies. It takes its time in the lead up, always with that edge of dread and tension, slowly ratcheting it up, until the heavier action begins. The audience is always uneasy, and the atmosphere, nicely evoking the foreign sense of Poland, even though it was shot in Toronto, contributes greatly to the film's success. This isn't a direct homage, like House of the Devil, and it veers from the well trod paths of the genre much more than that (also excellent) film, but its modern sensibilities don't take away from the effect. Instead, The Shrine stands up as its own animal, and that's just fine.