The Shrine (2010)
Directed by: Jon Knautz
Starring: Aaron Ashmore, Cindy Sampson, Meghan Heffern, Ben Lewis, Trevor Matthews, Laura DeCarteret, Connor Stanhope, Julia Debowska, Paulino Nunes, Vieslav Krystyan
(out of 4)
Are you sure John Carpenter's in there?
Warning: slight spoilers ahead.
Jon Knautz’s sophomore effort The Shrine surprised me. It’s a blend of certain genre horrors – Satanic cults, torture porn, demonic possession flicks – and out of the mix it creates something heady, and if the beginning comes across as a bit ho-hum (characters follow the horror handbook by making stupid decisions), the ending makes up for it by subverting audience expectations in a number of ways. The horrors, when they come, are visceral and uncompromising – and upon further reflection, political. If The Shrine indulges our sense of superiority in watching these kinds of films by having its characters make predictable decisions (a character gets multiple warning signs – from dreams and irate villagers, but ignores them), it punishes them (and the audience) by upending the “final girl” trope completely. It reminded me of when Richard Falcon described Miike’s Audition (and Hitchcock’s Psycho) as a “breach of contract between filmmaker and audience.” I’m not sure that The Shrine does it as well as those films, but I like that it tries.
Sure, I'm an evil demon. But I love modeling on the side.
Photographer Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) and workaholic journalist Carmen (Cindy Sampson) are on the verge of a breakup, but Carmen thinks she can salvage the relationship at the same time she can boost her career by breaking a missing person’s story about an American backpacker who disappeared somewhere in Poland. Going against her boss’ orders, she hops over to a small village with Marcus and her babe-in-the-woods assistant Sara (Meghan Heffern). Threatened by the locals but refusing to leave without answers, the trio come upon a clearing in the woods engulfed in a dense white fog. Inside the fog is a demonic statue that seems to be alive. Then the villagers get really pissed about trespassing on their “shrine” and Carmen and Sara soon find themselves dressed in white for a cult sacrifice. I had a strange feeling that Meghan Heffern was channeling Heather Matarazzo’s character from Hostel: Part II, and you know how that turned out for her. (Watching the torture/death scene involving a mask with sharp metal thorns being pummeled into the victim’s eyes, I had a nice flashback to Barbara Steele’s death at the beginning of Black Sunday).
Gothic Day Spa
The Shrine plays a little bit with conventions. One example is how our victims see the villagers as demons/monsters, a tactic that is eventually revealed to be misdirection, but it’s a good one. The movie has some other neat tricks, especially during the final minutes when it suddenly becomes The Evil Dead, with a newly possessed “deadite” laying waste to the poor saps who obviously haven’t been doing their cult thing long enough. I have to tread lightly here when discussing the plot, lest I give away too much. I will just say that there is a reason why the Polish spoken by the villagers isn’t subtitled (and I hear that it’s butchered Polish anyway, but no matter for English speakers). I will also tell you that because the ending packs a decent visual punch, the fact that the whole sequence plays out in a different language is of no lasting consequence, a testament to the power of horror in the visual medium. No, they’re definitely not in Poland (more like Ontario), and we’re never told the origins of the evil statue in the fog, but that’s not the point anyway.
Pop rocks and coke again?
There’s something of political commentary in The Shrine, as evidenced by the need for Carmen to intervene in a situation that she has no business doing, as unprepared she and her friends are for the mission. When they get to the village, they find that they are subject to forces they don’t understand, and they misidentify the source of the danger – the villagers/cultists are the “enemy” only because of the barriers in language, custom, and religion. Sounds like a jab at America’s foreign policy, doesn’t it? Even without that subtext, the film entertains and matches its fatalism (the “chosen” ones are already doomed, like Ti West’s House of the Devil or Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell) with a sense of cosmic justice (the one character who is the most reasonable and cautious escapes alive). The Shrine seems more fresh than a lot of its counterparts in modern horror. I think it’s worth a look.
– Bill Gordon
Fighting evil in flaming John Woo style!
* The Shrine is currently available on Netflix instant/streaming.