I’m with Joey Pants – Ignorance is bliss. Whenever I go to a festival, someone always asks me what movies I’m looking forward to, and I usually don’t really have much of an answer, because one thing I love about festivals is that I have no idea what I’m going to be seeing (I have literally had no idea what movie was about to play on more than one occasion at previous Screamfests – I just plunk my ass down and let it roll). With the regular theatrical stuff, there’s unavoidable awareness, but these movies, for the most part, come out of nowhere as far as I’m concerned, which allows me to watch them without an iota of expectation built in. And that’s why I had no idea that The Shrine was actually from the same guys that brought us Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer.
I liked but did not love Jack Brooks – it was a bit too back-loaded and the relationship trouble stuff made the movie drag. Oddly, the same problem plagues The Shrine – our main characters are having trouble communicating and balancing their work with their personal life and all that generic stuff. So the hero (Aaron Ashmore) goes along with his reporter girlfriend (“Supernatural”‘s Cindy Sampson) to investigate a string of disappearances in Poland (points for originality there – haven’t seen a lot of Poland-set horror movies. Especially not ones filmed in Canada) in an attempt to salvage their relationship by working together for once.
Ever listen to a new album from a band you like and think “Man, this one stinks” like halfway through and then suddenly it clicks and you end up digging the rest? That’s how this movie is. I was just about to write it off as a passable but forgettable flick, when it suddenly got pretty damn great. Sampson’s annoying assistant gets an iron maiden mask hammered onto her face, demons begin appearing, Ashmore’s stunt double takes a pretty spectacular fall down a hill, children are slaughtered… it’s almost like they wanted the first half of the movie to be kind of dull to make the 2nd half all the more impressive. So I am really glad I saw it in theaters; had I watched at home, I probably would have started paying less attention (“Let’s see what’s happening on Twitter…”) and missed out on what made the 2nd half work so well.
I also like how kind of ballsy the filmmakers are, because about 90% of the film’s final reel is in Polish without English subtitles. As we are more or less seeing everything from Ashmore’s point of view, we are left as puzzled/frustrated as his character when he tries to converse with the locals. Thus, we also have no idea what the knights are saying as they recite spells or prayers while trying to exorcise the demons from “infected” folks, but our familiarity with horror movies makes it pretty obvious what’s going on. True, we aren’t given much explanation for the curse that plagues the area (it boils down to a single line), but I don’t really care about that sort of stuff. The more you explain, the less interesting it becomes, as far as I’m concerned, and screenwriter Brendan Moore and Jon Knautz (who also directed, as with Jack Brooks) found a great balance between too much and too little.
It’s also got a few good jolt scares (even the proudly jaded Simon Barrett jumped at one), plus a bit of gore during the climax. I was mostly surprised by the lack of humor – since Jack Brooks was more comedy than horror, I figured they would work in some jokes (in small doses), but it’s played almost entirely straight, apart from the girls’ goofy boss at the magazine. There’s also a hilarious (but subtle) moment during the climax where someone looks to Ashmore for assistance. Speaking of which, I also dug that Ashmore never became the alpha male hero of the film – he gets caught up in this “war” and assists the good guys, but the important stuff always falls on the dudes who know what they’re doing. Kind of like 13th Warrior, where that one Viking dude takes on the main bad guy at the end instead of Antonio Banderas. Know your place.
And, even though I was kind of bored at first, I ultimately appreciated the slow burn approach, as it reminded me of some 70s movies I really dig, like Messiah of Evil or Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (which, like this film will be I’m sure, are films I liked even more on 2nd viewings) It’s a shame that they used the RED though; it looks great on a technical level, but 35mm or even Super 16 would have given the film a richer quality that further exemplified the 70s vibe that they were obviously going for. Obviously I will always prefer film, but I’m coming around to digital more and more. That said, sometimes I think film is a better choice not just for its superiority, but for the aesthetic it brings to the film on a creative level (just as digital is preferable for something like Paranormal Activity – if they shot on film and added one of those annoying digital camera overlays over the image to make it look like a video camera shot it, that movie wouldn’t have worked at all).
Not sure what the distribution plans are for this one yet, but with Jack Brooks’ success and The Last Exorcism helping revive this sub-genre, I’d be very surprised (not to mention disappointed) if it wasn’t snatched up quickly. It won’t be for everyone, but if you can appreciate a slow burn (especially if you KNOW it’s a slow burn), you’ll be rewarded. And if you’re Polish, you’ll know what’s being said! Then you can tell us.
More over at BC’s Horrormovieaday