Browsing through Netflix and thinking that I have far too much access to far too much crap these days, I stumble upon “The Shrine” and give the synopsis a quick little read through. No spark of interest the first, second, or tenth time I read through it on a given night but a recent recommendation of brief mention in a Lovecraft discussion board urged that I give this low budget indie flick a second look and a screening. So let me tell you about the boring synopsis – It basically sounded like Hostel meets the Wicker Man, a journalist investigates the disappearance of a hiker in a backwoods area of Europe and finds more than she bargained for. Something like that- it doesn’t really spark much interest in me because there are a couple dozen movies with the same description and I’ve seen the same thing over again. But when there’s a recommendation- and what’s more, a few more agreements with that same recommendation, I figure it’s worth checking out. And then, when you see the names of people responsible for one of your favorite movies in the past ten years, a little bit of excitement begins to build.
So the film starts off with a cult sacrifice as a young man is held down and chanting prayers echo through a dark chamber. An iron mask is brought to his face, huge spikes at strategic locations above the eyes and a little lower. As the mask is placed just perfectly, the cult leader brings a massive hammer down across the mask and drives it down into his face- blood pours, the body jerks and spasms, and ultimately dies a gruesome death. Then we’re introduced to the films lead characters, a young couple going through some rocky times as the woman continues to ignore the relationship in favor of pursuing her career as a journalist. She’s investigating the disappearance of the murdered man in the beginning of the film so she engages her boyfriend ( A photographer) and her assistant to accompany her to the man’s last known destination in Europe. I think it may be Scandinavia, but I’m not entirely certain. They find a xenophobic town that bars them from entering the wilderness over which floats an unmoving grey smoke or mist.
And while we’ve taken some time to get here and the atmosphere has been built up rather impressively, it’s at this point that the movie starts to roll down the track with only a few small drops to get you ready for the big one. Oh, these people find the mist. And two of them enter, do a bit of exploring, and they definitely find something in there. I’m not going to spoil it, but it’s definitely a creepy scene. And the townspeople certainly do not want them to be there, but now very bad things are absolutely going to happen as a result. And I’m not going to spoil these either. But I’m going to tell you something else, also: there are no explanations. There are no subtitles beneath the screen when the townspeople talk about the situation, when they discuss their options for what to do with these interlopers, there’s no answer for anyone, and the resolution will not solve everything- and this is about as far from all the other generic films matching Hostel and Wicker Man descriptions as it can get, because this film is definitely a creature of a different sort.
What “The Shrine” does have is an atmosphere reminiscent of the Hammer Films with a little bit of Lovecraft thrown in for flavor. Special effects seem practical, bloody, and gruesome but the film focuses much more on the situation and the mythology of its own story. The choice to not add subtitles helps the audience to identify much more strongly with the protagonists as we also fail to understand where they are, what is happening, and who the people are who are chasing them through the wilderness.
Currently streaming on Netflix.
4 out of 5.
(retro-look) Castle Freak
Presented by Full Moon Video, the film is loosely based upon “The Stranger” by HP Lovecraft and falls incredibly short by several measures. Barbara Crampton is once again cast with Jeffrey Combs to tackle the material in what seems to be a continuation of the series begun with “Re-animator”. I’m not entirely sure where this film falls in the order of release, but I know that director Stuart Gordon worked on a number of films “inspired” by Lovecraft during this period of time and this is the least discussed amongst the work. Watching the film, it’s easy to see why.
The story by Lovecraft is considered one of his best, but there simply isn’t enough material there to explore a full length feature on its’ own. There are other stories that explore the “ghoulish” creature described, an entire society of the creatures mentioned in various “dream cycle” stories, but “The Stranger” is pretty much a stand-alone tale dependent on the twist ending to deliver the sock to the gut it requires. The story is utilized and takes up all of about five minutes from the film, the rest of it revolving around a marriage on the rocks and the typical stalking monster living in the castle.
Combs delivers a decent performance, and Crampton largely disappoints with a character that seems poorly written at best. The “plot”, such as it is, revolves around the inheritance of a family castle and the unhappily married couple attempting to cope with the death of their young son after a DUI accident involving the father. Combs is carrying a lot of weight, Crampton’s character blames him and wants him to suffer, and the blinded daughter is only trying to learn to cope with her new life. The film, however, puts all of its gravity in Combs and he borders on the pathetic while coping with his demons. Crampton might have well been on the phone to deliver her lines, because she’s barely there for either daughter or husband save to scold him and then disappear. Very little is done to explore her emotions throughout the film, and it’s a shame because Cramption is a far better actress than this. Add into the mix a suspicious police inspector jumping from one conclusion to the next in a dizzying display of logic leaping and the film generally starts to fall apart.
The special effects are nothing to sneer at, however and the movie works on a few levels but fails to live up to the expectations set by From Beyond or Re-animator. Synthetic music builds the tension suitably, but is just the same old Full Moon scoring we hear in a variety of movies from the studio and adds little to the tension of a given scene. Quite possibly the best performance comes from “the Freak” itself- a pathetic creature tortured for untold decades, his body a mass of scar tissue and unset broken bones jumbled into a pulpy mass that knows it could never be loved by a the society from which he has been kept for so long. The actor within the rubber suit manages to convey moments of frustration, worry, and insecurity within the creature and it is definitely the best part of this poor film.
2 out of 5.