Can the final moments of an unexceptional film retroactively make the whole thing exceptional? The Shrine sure makes a strong case for the affirmative.
The set-up for The Shrine is a familiar and ostensibly predictable one. A career-consumed journalist, Carmen (Supernatural’s Cindy Sampson) learns of a string of missing-persons cases, all from the same area in Poland. Despite the opposition of her magazine editor, she takes off for Poland with her intern/assistant, Sara (Meghan Heffern) and her photographer boyfriend, Marcus (Smallville’s Aaron Ashmore, not to be confused with his twin brother, Shawn Ashmore from Frozen, X2, and The Ruins – who oddly enough also briefly appeared on Smallville). The trio reaches the Polish village where the most recent missing person had last been seen. Things follow the standard boilerplate for rural-phobic horror films: small town people are weird and old fashioned, the villagers act suspicious, then the villagers get angry and threaten our big city interlopers, demanding they leave. Then just when it seems like we’re in store for a typical Hostel knock-off, things start to get weird. There is a strange smoky mist the hovers over part of the forest near the village. Despite Marcus’s wishes to return to the airport, Carmen convinces him to investigate. In the woods, they find a dense wall of eerie, unnatural fog. Carmen enters the fog, which seems to eat all sound and visibility. At the center, she finds a gargoyle-like statue. When the villagers discover the trio hasn’t left, things start to get violent. And a lot more interesting.
The Shrine comes from Brookstreet Pictures – writer/director Jon Knautz and producer/actor Trevor Matthews (who appears here as the main Polish thug) – whose previous effort was the silly 80’s homage Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. Brooks was fun in parts (featuring an inspired turn by Robert Englund), but uneven and ultimately forgettable. The Shrine is a huge departure from Brooks; out is the horror-comedy, in is dead serious horror. At first I thought Knautz had maybe bitten off more than he can chew, because the early portions of the film just don’t work. The set-up beats are so predictable and well-trodden that they motivate only cursory engagement from us, and the actors can’t seem to find their footholds with the material (which is almost always the director’s fault). Things remain wonky when our trio get to Poland even. The events continue to be extremely rote, and our characters still haven’t clicked as likable or relatable (or fully believable) people. But once the inexplicable fog enters the film, things start to pick up speed and fall into place.
I’d love to talk explicitly about these later events of the film, but it is extremely hard to nimbly do so without spoiling the experience. I’ll say this – I’m not a fan of movies that rely on having a big 180-degree twist at the end (with some notable exceptions, of course). I think gimmicky twists undermine a film’s narrative. But I love films that take sudden, diverging 90-degree turns. I also love films that build toward something. A film that takes crazy turns, all while still building toward something? That is my kind of movie. The Shrine is a film that does this, and considering its junky beginnings, does it very well. The Shrine is essentially the antithesis of YellowBrickRoad (another Screamfest 2010 entry), which began with an exciting and intriguing set-up, then spun it off into the ether of ambiguity and ended with a whimper.
Frankly, if I had been watching The Shrine on TV I probably would’ve turned the channel before it got good. Brookstreet had big ambitions for the type of film they were making; tonally it feels like a studio picture, which is problematic in that Sampson is no Naomi Watts (random example) and the film has distractingly cheap, flavorless cinematography. Cheapness is not an area that generally bothers me in horror. In fact, I love cheap horror movies. But I subconsciously expect different things from a cheesy slasher flick than I do from something going for a classier vibe. Early on, The Shrine’s cheapness threatens to get in the film’s way. Biggest exemplifier is the creepy statue Carmen finds in the fog. I hate to say it, but it looks like junk. For the realism of the film (and this is a film that is trying to evoke realism), it needed to look truly ancient… a stone. But it looks like a haunted house prop. I can’t fault the props or FX department, as the design of the statue is fine, but it needed to be shot very differently to hide its faults. Every shot of it would pull me out of the reality of the film. In fact, I’d say The Shrine’s biggest misstep is ending the film with a final shot of the statue, which nearly threatened to break the spell its awesome final events had cast on me – a mediocre reminder of what had come before. Nearly threatened to.
While the digital look of the film never technically improves, I eventually stopped noticing. Honestly, it’s almost like the entire production team was simply bored by the first 30 minutes of the film, because once we get past that statue everything starts to feel increasingly energized. The locations become more interesting, the design work improves (particularly on the key prop of a ritualistic mask), the characters shift from generic to somewhat nuanced (especially Marcus), and Knautz finds a great rhythm to the pacing. Another big surprise, coming off the comedy of Jack Brooks, is the level of scariness The Shrine achieves. There is one big jump scare towards the beginning that kicked the audience I saw the film with right in the ass, but it’s the non-jump scares of the climax that most impressed me. There is some good ol’ spookiness going on here.
I can already sense that this review is skirting the edge of dangerously overselling the second half of this film, but I will also point out that before I walked into the screening I asked one of the Screamfest organizers what they thought of the film. The response I got was, “It has a great ending.” Yet it still managed to get me. The Shrine has one of the most awesome character decision moments I’ve seen in a while.
So The Shrine’s ending left a real impression on me. Yet it’s not a twist that colors the rest of the movie differently when I look back on it or anything. The early stages of the film are still clunky and weak. I almost feel like giving the film two different scores, one for the beginning and one for the ending. As much as I wish I could watch the final third of The Shrine for the first time all over again right now, there is too much mediocrity in the first chunk of the film to call it great. It will have to settle for quite good. And it is quite good. You should see this movie.