“Nothing for you here,English!”
I’ve passed The Shrine by a few times, I don’t think I ever even put it in my queue. I’m not sure why, really. The cover image is no better or worse than any other I’ve seen. Yes it’s got some bad reviews, but that’s never really stopped me from watching horror films before. If I have to pin down a reason, it’s probably the title. There’s nothing about it that jumps out at me and says horror. It just seems more passive or even innocuous than, say, The Monument. Or even (and more appropriately) The Statue. I just associate it more with quiet contemplation or Buddhist temples or Shinto. It’s a gap in my mental net and the movie just passed right through it.
Streaming on Hulu. That’s it. Currently there’s no other option for streaming and you can’t rent or buy it anywhere. There’s no DVD or Blu-ray release in the US, but the Blu from the UK is region free.
The Shrine starts off with a bang – that of a sledgehammer slamming down on a metal mask – as an apparent cult really does a number on a young guy, strapping him to a table before the hammer comes down, the metal mask over his face.
After that, we’re introduced to Carmen (Cindy Sampson), the kind of journalist that ignores her bosses orders to stop investigating a story – and ignores her boyfriend, Marcus (Aaron Ashmore), as well. To be fair, it does seem like her story is worth pursuing – a number of tourists have gone missing in Poland over the years, and she has a line on the family of a recent disappearance – this is Eric, the young man from the opening scene. As her boyfriend is a photographer, she manages to convince him to come to Poland with her and her assistant, Sara (Meghan Heffern) to shoot pictures for her eventual story. Assuming she’s not summarily fired for doing the trip behind her editor’s back.
During a good chunk of the start of this movie – hell, maybe the whole first half – I was not really impressed. It’s got some mood, one good jump scare and a couple of good actors – I always like Aaron Ashmore – but it feels thin and almost cheap, like a SyFy picture. The lead, Sampson, is just okay in her role and she plays Carmen with an almost flat affect that makes everyone else around her seem to be over-emoting. It feels like she (and to a lesser extent, Heffern) is playing a character in a monster movie and the others – Ashmore in particular – play their characters like they’re in a drama. Carmen is constantly going places, saying things and doing things that only make sense in a monster movie. Ashmore’s character is like a normal person, constantly saying things like “We should leave.” and “That’s not a good idea.”
He’s right of course, it’s not a good idea. None of it.
Directed to the small town of Alvania (which sounds like a location in a GI Joe cartoon) by Eric’s journal they find the place to be a bit time-lost, with dirt roads, open fields and a lot of distrustful town folk. Near a small church with a strange symbol they see a weird, stationary cloud hovering over the forest. It’s mentioned in Eric’s journal, so they head that way, but are stopped by a group of villagers with pitchforks. Well, I think one of them had a pitchfork. Might have been a rake. You get the idea. The leader, a guy named Henryk (seen earlier butchering a hog) mistakes them for ‘English’ and demands they leave.
Marcus is only too happy to oblige, but Carmen has other ideas. She’s not leaving without finding out what happened to Eric. They park the car and head overland through the woods before coming across a wall of dense fog that seems to be just sitting there, not moving, not dissipating. While Marcus and Carmen argue about what to do, Sara enters the fog and quickly disappears from sight. After some time goes by, Carmen enters the fog after her.
This is the point at which things start to turn around in the film for me. Up until this point I’ve only been vaguely interested and neither the characters nor their interpersonal drama have done anything to deepen that interest. The town and it’s folk are weird, yeah, but it could be any of a hundred ‘villages with a secret’ in a hundred different horror movies.
Ah, but you see, the secret they’re hiding is, of course, in the fog. And once Carmen has found it, it’s really too late for them all to leave.
The events of the film after that completely won me over. It went from a film I didn’t really like much to a film I was happy to be watching. It kept me guessing longer than it probably should have, but I’d been lulled into thinking it was one kind of film before it switched gears and went a bit crazy on me. Nothing in the first half of the film really prepares you for how violent and weird things get – so this is me, preparing you. It gets weird. And violent.
The way things go is interesting and enough of a ‘twist’ that I don’t really want to say any more about it, just in case a 10 year old movie still has surprises for some of you.
There is an extended sequence of what I consider torture, about two thirds of the way through the film. A character is subjected to the same sort of thing that the initial scene showed, but it’s drawn out and extremely tough to watch. I could have done with this being a lot shorter – you get the idea pretty quick – but on the other hand it serves to set your mind in a certain direction, so I get why they did it – I just don’t like it much.
The Bottom Line
The Shrine is a movie that overcomes a pretty stale premise and a very slow first half to become something really worth watching. It’s not fine cinema and you may end up feeling like you should have seen certain things coming, but it still leaves you feeling like you watched a decent horror movie. And given how I felt when it started, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.