“The Shrine” is another example of an increasingly common breed of horror vehicle that’s popping up all the time these days: often the product of talented film school graduates raised in the image of Eli Roth and aspiring to the status of Sam Rami, wielding HD cameras and armed with access to a passable grade of CGI tricks, they're often the work of young filmmakers who have clearly been brought up on a deep love of old-school horror classics and now get to channel that love into reasonably competent low budget outpourings of their own. Canadian filmmaker Jon Knautz delivers an engaging and at times provocatively gory slice of supernatural horror here with his second feature-length film. The moment in “The Shrine” when we realise for sure that Knautz knows his horror moves inside out comes during a scene in which malevolent robed monks, conducting some sort of foreign-sounding occult ceremony, place an iron mask above the head of their bound sacrificial victim. They’ve obviously taken their course in Gothic-flavoured medieval religious ritual from the school of Mario Bava, particularly the opening moments of his classic “The Mask of Satan” (aka, “Black Sunday”), but, this being a film brought to fruition in the age of torture porn, the sharpened spikes protruding from the mask’s inside eye-pieces are a grizzly nine inches long and the mallet with which they are to be hammered home through the unfortunate victim’s eye-sockets is a whacking great massive thing -- set to pound the duel razor-stilettos straight through the skull and out the other side, to the sound of a hideous, combined crunching-squelching audio effect! Lucio Fulci himself would have been proud of such gloriously unpleasant eye violence.
Unfortunately, like so many such efforts, although “The Shrine” is a perfectly okay, workaday slice of bloody entertainment, the whole does seem rather less than the sum of its parts, and one finds oneself eventually ticking off items on the smorgasbord of horror influences it’s been devised to encompass rather than getting truly lost in the film as a work in its own right. Here, the principle classic influences are “The Exorcist” and “The Evil Dead” but one can tick off nods to many a past glory and even a fair few recent ones – a plot move from “Hostel” here, an image from late-‘90s Japanese horror there – all the way through it. The film is “well-made” in an un-dazzling, perfunctory, by-the-numbers sort of a way. It looks like a proficient example of a modern TV pilot episode or any number of generically looks-slick-with-a-bit-of-extra-grading-applied, low-budget-but-should-do-well-on-the-festival-circuit horror efforts. Ultimately though, it’s got nothing all that new to show us, and aside from an unexpected realignment of audience sympathies in the final act, there are few surprises to be found here.
Relying on what is surely one of the most flagrant examples of the stereotyping of the post-communist ex-Eastern Bloc as constitutionally backward and populated by sociopathic recidivists since the genre was first founded in Eli Roth’s two “Hostel” films, we’re supposed to believe that there are areas of modern-day Poland so backwards and remote that a huge plume of otherworldly fog towering static above a forest, way into the stratosphere, where it acts as a gateway into an ashen, Fulcian/Lovecraftian realm of the forsaken Beyond populated by demonic forces -- can exist without anyone else in the country stumbling upon it, apart from a succession of foreign backpackers, who keep disappearing after visiting the outlying village enclave where a poor population of about a dozen people, who still dress in medieval peasant clothing from the 16th century and appear to be in the thrall of a cabal of sinister robed priest-leaders, are all either violent, muscle-bound yokel thugs with a nasty wild-eyed look, or weird flouncy-dressed Midwich Cuckoo kids. Young journalist Carmen (Cindy Sampson) is entreated by the mother of a missing local hiker to investigate her son’s case after a lack of interest from the police, who have prematurely closed the case. After a spot of digging reveals that there have been many similar instances in which hikers disappeared after visiting the same village of Alvaina in Poland, even though their luggage later turned up in various other spots around Europe, she decides there is a story here that could really put her name on the map as a journalistic hotshot.
Unfortunately, her editor at the magazine she works for doesn’t agree and spikes the story. But Carmen is super ambitious -- a fact that we’re supposed to pick up on because she spends all her time on her Blackberry, which really doesn’t seem all that unusual in this day and age … I have a hard time thinking of anyone I know who doesn’t do the same! But her rather needy photographer boyfriend Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) feels neglected by this, so she enjoins him to come along to Poland with her and a cute intern at the magazine called Sara (Meghan Heffern) to look into the story for themselves, without the permission of the magazine. This despite being haunted in a dream by a spectral apparition of the missing hiker who appears with blood pouring from hollowed out eyes in the midst of a ghostly wind and a creaking bedroom door, to beseech her not to disturb his remains! Undeterred then by both supernatural visitations and the disappearance of sundry other foreign visitors to the very region they are to travel into, the trio set off unofficially, without even telling anyone else where they’re going.
The story unfolds gradually by presenting bit by bit pieces of a puzzle in the form of a series of bizarre images, discoveries and happenings, the meanings of which we have to wait until the end to figure out, when we’re finally given enough information to see how they all fit together (which turns out to be not how you might at first think they would), leading do a denouement tinged with a particularly cruel irony. The intrepid investigators find a throwback rural Polish village full of shadowy log cabins and homesteads, an antiquated church with a secretive clergy in black, gold-trim robes. They find the inhabitants cold and hostile, but they meet an emaciated little girl in a white dress called Emilia (Monica Bugajski) who seems eager to give them information but is called off by a threatening bunch of local men led by tough local animal renderer Henryk (Trevor Matthews). With the girl’s help they do manage to find a hidden shed that leads to an underground cellar full of makeshift coffin-crates that contain the bizarre skeletal remains of monstrous bird-like creatures with spiked iron masks affixed to their heads. Weirdest of all, they stumble into the woods where they discover that the strange foggy mist which coils and towers so strangely above the forest has some unusual properties. Both girls wander separately into the mist and find themselves in a menacing, eerily quiet, featureless apocalyptic realm where the trees are lifeless, dead and black. At the centre dwells a coal-black statue of a clawed, bat-faced demon. More disturbingly still, the statue changes position every time you look away, and seems to get closer and fix its gaze directly on the girls (is Knautz a fan of the Weeping Angles from “Doctor Who”? One has to wonder.) Both girls emerge separately from the mist discombobulated, prone to hearing whispering voices on the wind that are inaudible to Marcus (who sensibly stayed the hell out of the mist, even after both girls disappeared) and most unpleasant of all, subject to occasional flashes of ‘insight’ that appear to briefly reveal the other villagers in an alternative guise as hideous monsters!
Most of the film is pure set-up, it’s true, in which we’re waiting for something to actually happen; but the pay-off is reasonably exciting, visually arresting and blessed with an aptitude for gore and nastiness that does bring to mind Lucio Fulci -- particularly in a scene involving the death of a small child, which is just the kind of thing rarely seen outside of the Italian gore-master’s oeuvre. The last act twist is not as hard to predict as some might have you believe though undeniably draws together and makes more sense of the plot’s many disparate components (which is not to say that there aren’t still some elements left over that don’t make any sense, and several dropped plot threads). It’s possible to debate the misogynistic agenda of a film which dishes out such a quite spectacularly unpleasant arc of endurance for its two beautiful young heroines, but any such thesis is inherently limited by the fact that the same journey was presumably also taken by the other hikers before them, most of whom appear to have been male. More likely there is a vague subtext readable here about intervening in foreign affairs when a lack of past familiarity with the original cultural context of the situation means matters are inadvertently made worse by the interference. This is maybe discernible in the fact that only foreigners (and mainly Americans at that, whom the locals touchingly all seem to believe come from England because they speak English) appear prone to succumbing to the fate that befalls all but the most incurious of the three main protagonists. The film doesn’t hang around to provide any explanations for the origins of the fog and its unholy occupant other than its being the result of the proverbial ancient curse, but you can rest assured there’s prequel/sequel written all over this one should the film prove in any way successful.
Arrow Films bring “The Shrine” to DVD and Blu-ray in a completely bare-bones release with a fairly decent HD transfer, although the cinematography is a standard, unlovely example of a visual aesthetic that’s been concocted in post-production with digital grading processes, and the film has a fairly identikit “modern” look as a consequence. This one isn’t going to be a classic we’ll still be talking about in five or ten years’ time, but for now, you could do a lot worse for an evening’s viewing if undemanding, competently put together but standard horror fare is all you require.
Read more from Black Gloves at the blog Nothing But The Night!