Monday, October 15, 2012

Shrine On You Crazy Diamond

It's not without a certain amount of affection that I suggest that The Shrine (2010, directed by Jon Knautz) reminds me of something that Charles Band's Full Moon might have made circa 1990 or so. It has that same feel of something cobbled together from spare parts lying around on the floor of the genre factory, along with shocks that are no deeper than the monsters on the surface. This isn't a movie with deep wells of subtext. In former years, it would have been a staple on the back shelves of the horror section at your local video store. In this post-video store era, it languishes on Netflix. It's not bad at disguising its plot twist, though it's a familiar plot twist (at least one other movie I've seen this year has used it), and it's not bad at creating a certain amount of dread during its long build-up, but when it starts to let the freakshow take over, it turns into pure schlock. As I say, it's not without a certain amount of affection that I say so.

The story follows Carmen, a journalist, who cajoles Marcus, her photographer boyfriend and Sara, her intern assistant, to follow her to Poland to investigate the disappearance of an American tourist. Once there, they stumble upon one of those hostile insular communities that only seem to exist to hide some dark secret. As is de rigeur in horror movies, no one knows where they've gone. Her editor thinks she's in Omaha investigating the vanishing honeybee. In any event, the locals won't talk to her. The hinge on which the movie turns is a shrine that lies in a weird patch of unnatural fog. After striking out with the locals, who shoo her away in no uncertain terms, she doggedly heads into the fog. Both she and Sara find the shrine and are...disturbed by it. Seeing the shrine marks both of them, and the locals turn from merely surly to openly hostile, hunting our trio down and dragging both Carmen and Sara off to be sacrificed to whatever dark god rules the village. Marcus is made to dig his own grave, which enables him to effect an escape. He's too late to save Sara, who has a spiked mask hammered onto her face, but he's able to rescue Carmen. Only then, do the couple discover the true nature of the horror they've brushed up against...

I have to admit to giving a short burst of laughter when I realized that this movie recreates the Mask of Satan from Mario Bava's Black Sunday. This is up front in the film's prologue--just as it is in Bava's film--though it initially averts its gaze. I wondered if it was going to cheat on this, but no. I shouldn't have worried. This particular means of execution returns later in the film. One of the problems with re-staging famous scenes from better movies is that it tends to deconstruct your own bad decisions. That's what happens here. The mask scene in Black Sunday is in black and white and has been shot with Bava's typical atmospherics. It's horrible, but it's also kind of poetic, in a Sadean sort of way. The scene here, in full color and somewhat over-lit, is just lurid. The mask scene is hardly this film's only act of larceny. But these things happen in the genre, even if it's rarely quite this blatant.

I was lamenting yesterday about a film that I thought lacked an instinct for the jugular. That's not a problem with The Shrine. While it generally backloads the movie for set pieces, when they come, they're visceral and mean. This is a film in which no one is safe, which makes for a fun ride and walls painted with viscera. So we have a film filled with gore. Check. There's a vaguely Lovecraftian feeling to this film's plot. The statue at the core of this film's mysteries may not be some gelid, cephalopodic horror--it's more medieval devil than anything--but how it plays out in the story is very much of a piece with Lovecraft. Once you've glimpsed the elder gods, as characters do in this film, the elder gods can glimpse you. In keeping with this, our heroine begins to hallucinate, recasting the hostile villagers as degenerate monsters. In principle, I dig this. In practice, well....

I think I've mentioned in the past that there's a crisis of imagination in the horror genre. If ever there were a movie in need of more creative design choices, it's this one. Its carnival of freaks mostly look like bad Halloween masks. Its sinister cultists don't look sinister enough. At least part of this is how the film is shot. I've mentioned that its main horror beats are overlit, and I stand by that, but part of it, too, is simply bad production design. Likely, this film had a very short pre-production period (hence the low budget slash and trash pulp style with which its horror beats are filmed), which is a pity. The filmmakers might have been better served by taking some time to get it right before going before the cameras. Alas, this was not to be.

In spite of all this, there is a certain pulp vitality in this film. It doesn't linger overlong on anything, and it moves from point a to point b with a fair amount of economy. Nor does it overstay its welcome. Is it entertaining? Sure? Is it good? Of that, I'm not so sure.

Current tally: 12 film

First time viewings: 10

From Around the Web

DeAnna at All Things Perfect and Poisonous fills in a gaping hole in her education by taking in The Bride of Frankenstein.

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter lives through The Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader.

Dr. AC over at Horror 101 has an encounter with Karen Black in her prime, plus a few other B-list actors. He also thinks he's grown out of Abbot and Costello.

Tim over at The Other Side plunges into lesbian vampires, Hammer-style, with Twins of Evil.

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