Zeitgeist Films // 2010 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // April 27th, 2012
Once you find it, they won't let you leave.
Normally, Zeitgeist is where I turn when I want to see Mongolian films about things dying, so I was definitely intrigued to see a horror entry from the label on the menu. Tonally, it falls way out of line with the kind of movie they normally trade in, but the quality and the spirit are certainly there. The Shrine is excellent independent horror that gets it right, and I can't ask for much more.
Carmen (Cindy Sampson, Swamp Devil), a small-time journalist looking for her big story, gets a tip about the disappearance of a young traveler in Europe. Her editor wants her to do some report about bees instead, but she books passage to Poland with her assistant, Sara (Meghan Heffern, Chloe), and her photographer boyfriend, Marcus (Aaron Ashmore, Fear Island), to see what they can uncover. The icy reception that they find upon arriving in the tiny village they were led is nothing compared to what they find when they investigate a strange fog that constantly hangs in the forest. There is something very bad inside there and the villagers are willing to do absolutely anything to keep them away from it.
The best thing about The Shrine is that it doesn't try to reinvent the genre. I don't want horror reinvented, and it's refreshing to see a movie that doesn't wink at the audience or make it all a big joke. The movie is serious and pretty mean, which is what I want to watch.
Director Jon Knautz (Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer), who wrote the film with Brendan Moore, jumps right into the action with an opening scene that almost guaranteed I would like the movie, regardless of what else happened. A violent, super creepy ritual really gets me going, and this one is put together perfectly. It sets up everything we need to know for the rest of the story and, if viewers are paying attention, the ideas at the end of the film are strongly hinted at here. It's heavy with atmosphere and plays on both medieval religious themes and nasty eye stuff.
This effective opening is followed up by a very passable plot that doesn't try to do too much, but is a little bit implausible. If the idea that a reporter is willing -- or even able to afford -- to pay for three tickets to Poland on what amounts to little more than a hunch, is ridiculous, it's also secondary to why we're here. Even as the story gets going, Knautz gives us little tidbits of the horror to come and one very good, unexpected scare that also made me question what kind of horror movie I was watching. Was it the religious style of the ritual opening or a ghost movie? That's taken even further when they get to Poland, the movie takes on more notes of The Hills Have Eyes and Hostel.
While I might have been a little confused, the movie isn't; all of these elements work together really smoothly in building to an exciting finale that comes off quite a bit differently than I expected. It's not the kind of big twist that changes everything because they've been setting it up throughout the movie. It may not be readily apparent while it's happening, but it makes good sense in the end and isn't nearly the stretch it might seem. There are a lot of influences thrown around here, but it wears them on its sleeve. It's not a ripoff or a remake, but Knautz acknowledges what works for him about the genre and uses those pieces to make his own thing. It's not unique, but The Shrine uses the pieces for a great mixture and a fun movie.
The Shrine is dark and brutal, with a ton of atmosphere and a decent amount of the red stuff. The practical effects look cool and they aren't on screen for long enough to scrutinize them, anyway, which is the way it should be. Once the plot really gets going, the tension keeps up with few breaks until the end and there's enough action and violence to keep anyone occupied. The performances are strong all around and the Canadian setting is a believable representation of Poland, though it almost all takes place in the woods, which I suppose could be anywhere. Anyway, The Shrine is an all-around success and one of the better indie horror films I've seen in a while. Check it out; there's a ton to enjoy here.
Zeitgeist's disc for The Shrine gets the job done, but not a lot more than that, which is pretty typical for the label. The transfer is good, with nice clarity and no errors, while the colors are realistic and the detail remains good even in the thick fog. The audio is a mere stereo mix, but it's surprisingly bold. The separation between the speakers is there and the shock noises are really well placed in the soundscape. The music sounds great, as well, but the dialog levels are a little inconsistent. There are two supplements: a brief behind-the-scenes featurette and an audio commentary with the filmmakers, which is worth listening to especially for other indie horror writers and directors. It isn't a special disc or anything, but it does justice to the film.
I like The Shrine quite a lot and I can't wait to lend it to my horror friends. This is the kind of movie that really deserves to find a much broader audience than it actually will. It proves that directors can use concepts from movies they like to make their own original production, rather than just remake after remake. I can't wait to see what Jon Knautz and company has up their sleeves next.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site