Tagline: Once you find it, they won’t let you leave.
Directors: Jon Knautz
Cast: Aaron Ashmore, Cindy Sampson and Meghan Heffern
Distributor: Arrow Films
Release date: 27th February 2012
Carmen (Sampson), a young investigative journalist believes there is a story in the disappearance of an American tourist in Poland. Unfortunately neither the authorities nor her editor agree. With the assistance of an intern Sara (Heffern), Carmen continues to investigate whilst leading the editor to believe she is working on a story about missing bees.
Without her employer’s sanction she interviews the missing boy’s mother and is allowed to look through the luggage which was returned to her. She finds his journal which describes him visiting a small village called Alvania, and seeing a strange spectral fog in the nearby woods. Convinced the story will make her career, Carmen persuades her photographer boyfriend Eric (Ashmore) to accompany her and Sara to Poland to investigate.
When they arrive in Alvania, they find the locals unwelcoming and unwilling to help them. But when they see the strange stationary fog described in the journal and decide to investigate, the locals move from being unhelpful to aggressive. Could the three Americans have stumbled upon a local cult?
The Shrine is a frustrating film, it has all the elements of a compelling chiller but is let down badly by poor plotting and a lack of depth. The early part of the film establishing the three American protagonists is deeply unconvincing. No intern journalist would act as recklessly as Sara, and it is doubtful any journalist would defy an editor as Carmen does. Carmen and Eric’s relationship is shaky at the start, so why is he so eager to jump on a plane with her, and an intern, to help with a potentially dangerous investigation?
Once the characters arrive in Alvania, there is a cringeworthy scene where Carmen actually says to a local girl “we’re American, have you heard of America?” Patronising much? The investigation involves far too much of a reliance on “the idiot plot”. You know, the one that makes people investigate the sinister cellar with only a lit candle. Or get up in the night to check out a mysterious sound in the attic wearing only a negligée. The characters are supposed to be intelligent twenty-somethings, but they act like they are in an episode of Scooby Doo!
Eastern Europe seems to have become the new landscape of choice for the nightmares and boogeymen of the horror genre in the 21st century. Horror films often favour foreign settings as it allows them to easily establish a sense of otherness. Setting a horror film in Eastern Europe also allows filmmakers to present ‘otherness’ but sidestep the potential accusations of racism that might arise if they set a film in Africa for instance (look at the trouble the Japanese games company Capcom got into when they set the game ‘Resident Evil 5′ in Africa).
A problem here is that the The Shrine clearly appears to have been shot domestically in Canada and not on location in Poland. It just doesn’t feel right. Which is ironic after seeing films like The Omen (2006) in which Prague made an unconvincing London. In fact there really isn’t any reason for setting the film in Eastern Europe. It could quite easily have been set in an isolated community in the US. This would have helped make the protagonists’ investigation seem less unlikely by not requiring them to book international travel. It would also have allowed more opportunity to characterise the community and the strange religious practices of the locals. This film clearly invites comparison to The Wicker Man (1973), but Robin Hardy’s classic film took great care to present the community of Summerisle in some depth.
All this is a shame, because The Shrine actually has some very effective moments. An encounter with a sinister statue in the fog is genuinely creepy. This sequence has a touch of Val Lewton about it, and is aided by a good score from Ryan Shore (the nephew of Howard Shore). The film’s last third features some very effective gore makeup, and would be even better if the characters were people you cared about.
Director Knautz’ previous film was the knockabout comedy monster movie Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, he is to be commended for trying something different here. The Shrine is refreshingly serious. It is a shame that by choosing to pursue the foreign setting the filmmakers have set themselves obstacles they fail to properly deal with. Ultimately, this is a passable rental for horror fans but it could have been much more.
Rating: 2.5 stars
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