Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Run for the Shadows

A couple of weeks ago, Wyatt Weed, the filmmaker who made the promo reel for the Vincentennial, sent me a message on Facebook. He complimented my blog and asked if I reviewed small independent horror films (which, of course, I do). Let me back up a bit and talk a little about the promo reel at the Vincentennial. The premise of the reel was a ghost walk through St. Louis to the locations where Vincent Price grew up, went to school, etc. At every location, there was a ghostly manifestation of Price, culled from his films. It was well done and it fit very well with both Price's screen persona as a horror star and the celebratory nature of the festival. Wyatt clearly knew what he was doing. So we traded emails for a bit, and then his movie showed up on my doorstep last week.

The film in question is a vampire movie called Shadowland (2010), and when I saw that it was a vampire movie, I groaned a little inside. But then I perked up a bit when I saw the DVD cover because I remembered seeing a pair of prop vampire-sized bat wings from this film's cover at Contamination last year. Contamination is St. Louis's fledgling horror media convention. This is my friend and fellow Dreams in the Bitch House conspirator, The Rev. Anna Dynamite, posing with said wings:

So my interest was suddenly peaked.

The movie itself is pretty middling, as these things go. It's NOT an amateur movie, as "low budget indie horror" sometimes means these days. The digital video is well shot, the screenplay holds a through line until the end and doesn't go wandering off the reservation to pad its length. In other words, it's the real deal. It's not without its awkward passages though. Most of the exposition is provided in flashbacks and didactic conversations, for example, and for a vampire film titled "Shadowland," it's surprisingly sunlit. And, well, it's a vampire movie, and vampire movies are just about as played out as zombie movies in the grand scheme of things. All told, I wasn't sold on this movie until it got to the very end. I'll come to that in a bit.

The story here finds Laura, a vampire girl from the late 1890s, resurrected in contemporary St. Louis when her final resting place is disturbed on the property of a church that's undergoing some renovations. Soon, she's wandering around a brave new world with no compass to guide her and no resources. She DOES have increasingly strong supernatural abilities, though, and these come in handy as she seeks food and shelter. Meanwhile, the church dispatches vampire-hunting troubleshooter, Julian, to bring Laura in. After she has an altercation with a skeezy homeless guy, the police are looking for Laura, too.

Shadowland is basically a chase movie, and for a chase movie done on such a pittance, it's pretty efficient. It makes good use of its locations around the St. Louis area (I may be biased here, since I know St. Louis pretty well) and it makes good use of its available resources. This the kind of movie in which the art of film editing becomes paramount, because the editor is going to have to create all of the forward motion through sleight of hand.

For all that, it's not an especially violent movie, which is kind of a surprise. It gets its money-shot gore scene out of the way early when we see Laura staked by vampire hunters in the 1890s, a scene it repeats later in the film after filling in the back-story. Gorehounds will be disappointed with this, given the film's rating. The filmmakers include an explanation of the film's R-rating in the DVD supplements and are apologetic if the rating deceives horror fans, but they had actually intended for the film to get a PG-13 and, not being a major production, they were stuck with the arbitrary whims of the ratings board. Their reticence doesn't hurt the movie, though. De-emphasizing the gore effects lets them focus on more important things like watching someone who is completely out of her time deal with the science fiction-y contemporary world in which she finds herself. The filmmakers don't force this stuff, and don't explain it, but weave telling little bits of business into Caitlin Macintosh's performance. They've taken the injunction to show, not tell, to heart in these scenes and it's fun watching Laura cope with things like telephones and automobiles.

Great whacks of this film could work as a silent film. Macintosh, playing our anti-heroine, doesn't have any dialogue for most of her screen time. This only helps the film, because it mitigates that bugbear of low budget filmmaking: dodgy acting. Jason Contini as Julian the vampire hunter doesn't fare quite so well given that he has dialogue, but he's not bad. Julian is mainly undone because his motives aren't quite clear enough. He obviously has deep knowledge of the supernatural, as all good vampire-hunting savants should, but he lacks the singularity of, say, Peter Cushing's Van Helsing. Shadowland turns Julian into a quasi-Ethan Edwards figure, and we don't know if he wants to kill our vampire heroine or save her. Therein lies the crux of what makes this movie more interesting than many another low-budget horror movie.

This is a movie that buys into the whole mythology of the vampire, particularly the Christian elements of the vampire archetype. As such, there's a heavy reliance on the authority of the church in supernatural matters, extending even into realms of shadowy government connections. While Julian may be a conflicted agent of the church, neither he, nor the movie, questions its moral primacy. The atheist in me bristles at this a bit, and I mourn the fact that it sets up the pastor in the flashback sequences as a more morally ambiguous figure only to back away from that stance in the end. But, hell, this is a horror movie, so I might as well be bitching at the sun for coming up in the east every morning. It's not like this kind of religiosity spoils Hammer movies for me, and this is far less Manichean than those ever were. For that matter, in the grand scheme of things, this religiosity makes sense for the universe in which this story takes place. The sucker punch at the end isn't possible without this context: At the end of the film, Laura takes refuge in a church. There's a suggestion in the movie that she can still be saved from eternal damnation because she hasn't killed anyone yet, and when she gets down on her knees in this church to pray for some kind of deliverance, it's an unexpected epiphany. Unfortunately for her, she DOES kill someone at the end of the movie and goes full-on vampire against the cops who are hounding her. The movie ends on a singularly downbeat note, as she walks away from everything with the weight of damnation hanging over her. Here's where the movie tickles my own cinematic predilections. This is a variant of the downward spiral of film noir. And I'm a sucker for stories about characters who fall from grace.

I should say a word or two about the DVD. Whatever one finally thinks of the movie itself, the DVD has a couple of featurettes that showcase the process of making a low budget film in a way that should be of interest to anyone who aspires to actually make one. The filmmakers find very creative workarounds for problems that larger productions would just throw money at. The cost of entry into filmmaking has been dropping for years, and this disc acts as a kind of Rosetta Stone for the process now that film production is within the means of a larger population of filmmakers than ever before. In some ways, the featurettes are better than the movie itself.

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