Ever wake up one day in a padded cell, nothing on but a pair of ashen grey undergarments and think, where am I? The plot set-up for SHADOW PUPPETS sounds like any one of my random Saturday mornings.
OK, right off the bat, this flick has two key selling points that are likely to get genre fanboys and girls equally excited. Director Michael Winnick has cast the two leads in his latest film with a pair of fandom’s most followed actors: Star Trek Enterprise’s Jolene Blalock and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsters. Blalock turned heads as doe-eyed pout-lipped Commander T’Pol, a role meant to capitalize on the growing Trecker interest in hot female counterparts—a trend started by the similarly featured Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine. Marsters took his cockney undead bad boy Spike through two Joss Whedon created series (Buffy and Angel), and arguably stole those shows from their namesakes in the process. So, how does the pair fare together?
In Shadow Puppets, Marsters and Blalock play a pair of amnesiacs who find themselves (along with a few other assorted castmates, including CANDYMAN’s Tony Todd) trapped in a dilapidated underground mental hospital, unable to recall who they are, how they got there, and what strange creature is trying to kill them all. It’s a simple set up for a film that sounds like a snooze-fest.
If the cast is the biggest draw to the film, the title is off-putting enough to virtually suck all the interest right away again. SHADOW PUPPETS hardly describes, in any manner, what this movie is about. It’s cutesy and ill fitting. It brings up visions of kids gathered around campfires making fuzzy bunny hand gestures—hardly the stuff of modern horror legend—unless, of course, a grizzly bear came into camp and ate all the kiddies up for dinner! And, a grizzly bear out creature is not! The creature that is stalking our cut-and-paste cast list is easily the least interesting feature in this film—a smoke monster.
It’s hard to make moving shadows menacing—unless you’re Jacques Tourneur. It also hurts the film that the creature looks like the “island defense system” from the TV series Lost was transported off that local and penned up in a left over set from about a dozen other direct-to-video horror films (see, UKM, GRIM REAPER or ROOM 6 for similar set design). Winnick also seems to have transported his cast’s names (Jack, Charlie, Kate) from everyone’s new favorite castaways. Still, SHADOW PUPPETS hardly feels overtly derivative. It shares a lot of common threads with other films and television shows in the Sci-Fi/Suspense pantheon but the cast here really helps bring the project together nicely.
It’s only a matter of time before the assorted marks make out what dastardly plot has brought them to their state of unknowingness. In the same manner, it’s only a matter of time before they discover that one of their ranks is not what they seem to be. Hardly a huge plot twist, the reveal is reasonably satisfying if only because a few other potential perpetrators slyly misdirect what seems outwardly obvious.
Marsters—who fans of his Spike persona are apt to find vocally disarming—does an admirable job with one of the more meaty roles. Blalock is a bit lost. She’s trying to be the soul of the film, but she feels disconnected. This problem is amplified in instances where she is required to carry a scene without the assistance of any supporting cast. She looks uncomfortable and often lost, crying for help as no one comes to her rescue. Tony Todd—a might presence—that is woefully underutilized in quality film work gets to chew some pretty sweet scenery as the one member of the cast who may just deserve to be locked up in an asylum. It’s nice to see CANDYMAN get a film role that takes up more than a day of shooting time and even has some semblance of a character arc.
On the whole, SHADOW PUPPETS is a solid thriller with precious little gore that works because it offers viewers a thought out script. The film is far from flashy, but all of the characters are fleshed out and their situation—even in its extremity—sells. It took Writer/Director Michael Winnick six years to follow up his first film DEUCES, and while SHADOW PUPPETS definitely has some flaws, I for one am looking forward to seeing another feature from this interesting filmmaker. At the very least, the film allayed my fears of child-like fingers making shadows on the walls.