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From Within

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Release Date: 
E Entertainment
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Directed by: 
Phedon Papamichael
Elizabeth Rice
Thomas Dekker
Laura Allen
Kelly Blatz
Bottom Line: 

"From Within" begins by establishing a dreamy, peaceful, cinematically familiar setting, much like one of those classic American horror flicks from the mid-'70s and early-'80s where small town innocence comes to be disrupted and menaced by an evil from the outside; this usually taking the form of a serial killer, as in John Carpenter's "Halloween".  Like Michael Laughlin's minor classic "Strange Behaviour" though, director Phedon Papamichael's film takes more of an offbeat approach, drawing on a threat that places it more in the tradition of early-'00s Japanese horror, where the threat is intangible, supernatural in origin, and virtually impossible to defeat in any predetermined logical manner. The threat comes literally 'from within' : "you're fighting yourself", as the film's emo-styled male hero puts it at one point. From this conceit as its starting point, the narrative expands organically to take in contemporary concerns like suicide hot spots (another theme that has always been recurrent in Japanese horror), religious intolerance and small town insularity: themes that take the film beyond the simple 'good-versus-evil' opposition of many of its predecessors, although it's debatable whether the plot is robust enough to deal with them all in a convincingly thorough manner.
After her boyfriend kills himself, shooting himself in the head during what should have been a romantic tryst by the river, the teenage daughter of a small town dress shop owner also stabs herself in the neck with a pair of scissors. Later her distraught father hangs himself in the back of his shop. This being a small community of religiously minded citizens, shock spreads quickly through the picturesque Grovetown, particularly for pretty Winona Ryder look-a-like, Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice), the quintessential girl-next-door who dates the local pastor's clean-cut son Dylan (Kelly Blatz), since she's already been put out by the increasingly erratic behaviour of her alcoholic stepmother (Laura Allen).
The community comes together each week at the local mega church, where the schmaltzy evangelical meetings have a distinctly American 'shopping mall' character, with their bland muzak and banal sentiment; but Dylan is not satisfied with his father's rather laid-back, happy hymn-singing approach. A strange black book of spells found clutched to the chest of the second victim, stirs old memories of a suicide that took place in Grovetown years back. The first victim and his brother Aiden (Thomas Dekker) are linked to this event through their mother — a practising witch who was blamed for the suicide back then by the God fearing Christian community, and who herself later died in mysterious circumstances. With this new spate of suicides coinciding with the brothers' return to the town, Dylan is convinced that these non-Christians are to blame for the blight infecting their community. The deaths keep coming and it becomes apparent that the first person to discover the body of each victim is the always the next to die. Eventually Dylan gathers a lynch mob of similarly God fearing townsfolk and together they beat up Aiden and daub graffiti on his front door.
Disgusted by her boyfriend's small-minded behaviour, Lindsay gives Aiden a lift home and is soon fascinated by this dark-haired, softly-spoken outsider, even though he looks like a member of My Chemical Romance (skinny jeans and mascara as cinematic shorthand for bad boy independent thinker). After his cousin Sadie (Margo Harshman), an attractive but disconcertingly spiky individual who shares her brother's penchant for dressing entirely in black, arrives for the funeral, Dylan and the rest of the local community become increasingly concerned about Lindsay's involvement with this unusual family. They, with the help of her own stepmother, even kidnap her and force her to take part in a religious ritual at the church, designed to cleanse her of evil influences! This doesn't stop her stepmother becoming the next victim of the 'curse' though, and after finding the body, Lindsay herself starts being stalked by a horrible apparition that seems determined to do her harm — a ghostly image that looks exactly like ... herself!
The Doppelgänge is a frightening form of supernatural threat that doesn't get utilised that much in horror cinema these days. Here it's more of a visual shorthand for an unseen psychological force that acts on the victim's unconscious — a metaphor for all the mental problems that can cause upset for teenagers — and not as much is made of the Doppelgänge device as perhaps could have been. There's only the occasional dab of gore here-and-there, the film mainly relying on fairly mild shocks in orchestrated set-pieces that run much along the same lines as the kind of thing you'd see in a Final Destination film. There turns out to be a deep vein of cynicism running throughout the narrative though; really, by the end, no-one has come out of it that well, and the credits roll over a shockingly bleak (but also kind of funny) set of final images that leave the viewer feeling quite ambivalent about who's side they should have been on.
Perhaps because the director has previously had a long and varied career as a cinematographer before recently branching out as a director, the visual look of this relatively low budget film is very strong, with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio being utilised very effectively to give a vivid impression of the homely but insulated town, with its ordered white-painted houses and neatly trimmed lawns. The DVD from E Entertainment presents the film in a pretty decent transfer, although there are no extras besides a trailer. This film will not be setting the world of horror alight by any means, but it makes for fairly entertaining viewing and it has some surprisingly well orchestrated moments of unease from a new director who doesn't normally specialise in the genre.  


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