Aaron Ashmore, Cindy Sampson, Meghan Heffern, Ben Lewis
(IFC; IFC On Demand: 15 Jul 2011; 2010)
The Shrine needs to make up its damn mind what kind of movie it wants to be. It starts out as a standard superstitious foreign country frightmare, adds in a touch of Devil worship (or prevention?), slips back into a more barbaric, backwoods version of Hostel, and then winds up working a weird exorcism into the mix. By the time it’s over, we aren’t sure why we sat through this macabre amalgamation. Clearly, writer/director Jon Knautz hoped the investigative journalist set-up would tie everything together. Instead, thanks to a horribly unlikable lead, it pulls them apart. As a result, we are stuck grading the effectiveness of each bit, and when the final tally is examined, The Shrine doesn’t survive. For a while it has bite and verve, but thanks to the issues inherent in its style and story, it leaves no lasting impression.
After making a major mistake at her monthly news magazine, reporter Carmen (Cindy Sampson) is desperate for another big story to revive her flailing career. While her photographer boyfriend Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) feels slighted and ignored, she peruses the case of a missing American backpacker, lost somewhere in the small Polish village of Alvania. With her trusty intern Sarah (Meghan Heffern) along for the trip, she heads over to Europe to see what she can uncover. Once in the tiny town, she is met with angry and unfriendly threats. Recognizing a fog-like anomaly from the boy’s journal, all three decide to go investigate. What they discover is something so horrible, so outside the scope of contemporary society, that it has the locals, and their pious superstitious church leaders, desperate to silence anyone who uncovers the terrifying truth.
In order to discuss The Shrine, it is necessary to offer a few minor spoilers. This is because one of the biggest complaints anyone will have watching this film is, exactly what the heck is going on here. Since Knautz decided to employ the novel narrative device of having Polish citizens speak in their native tongue, without the benefit of subtitles or any outward context or translation, we really don’t understand what’s at stake or why. There are hints enough to draw a decent conclusion, but one shouldn’t have to spend enormous amounts of intellectual energy trying to decipher a scary movie. In fact, one imagines that, had to situation been spelled out, the movie would have worked just as well.
From this critic’s standpoint, here is what supposedly happens. Alvania is apparently under the siege of some horrible spell (later called “a curse” by one of the residents), residing within a demonic statue in the middle of the surrounding woods. The monument - or shrine - is surrounded by the thick fog to keep everyday individuals from stumbling across it. Those unfortunate enough to come in contact with the effigy become possessed, requiring the priests to perform a bloody human sacrifice in order to destroy the devils inside, less they walk the Earth feasting on the living. Our trio does what every idiotic tourist does when arriving in the area - they immediately check out the creepy cloud. Only Carmen and Sarah see the figure, therefore they are the only ones targeted by the citizenry. Cue ending.
Now, that’s a novel idea for a horror film, and as luck would have it, Knautz is fairly well versed in bringing unusual material to movie screens. His first feature was the jokey Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, about a workaday slacker schmoe with anger management issues who ends up fighting off a myriad of practical F/X fiends. It was irreverent yet inventive. With The Shrine, Knautz wants to be taken seriously, and it’s clear he has the chops to accomplish such a task.
Unfortunately, he also has a couple of confusing decisions to explain, including making his lead actress a miserable shrew who can’t seem to do anything that’s not selfish and destructive. She makes a mistake and gets demoted. She wants to be important again, and ignores her boss’s wishes in the process. Before heading into the unknown, she does very little research on the region, and once in Poland (or Canada passing for same), she does her best ugly American shtick, including with and to those dumb enough to travel with her. Why anyone gives her the time of day is amazing.
As a result, Carmen is a hard center to care about. She’s cruel and calculated without a bit of redeeming value. Marcus has issues with her while Sarah seems content to play companion to her crackpot career ambitions. Everything is about her…her…her, and when it’s not, she whines terribly and then expects everyone to accept her latest tantrum with empathy and compassion. Even worse, Knautz makes the lady a lamentable last act catalyst, again asking us to switch our loyalties and root for her. Since we were already prone to wringing her overwrought neck, it’s a stretch, and not a really interesting, either.
Still, there are some elements that really work here. The first trip through the fog bank is breathtaking, even with the occasional lapses into obvious greenscreen. Similarly, the ritual sans subtitles is brutal and very evocative. Knautz knows his way around a camera and coaxes some very engaging scenes involving the faux Eastern Europe landscape (read: the Great White North) and some rustic dread. Yet the biggest flaw here remains the incoherent nature of the narrative. We don’t mind a movie that bounces around from idea seeing which one will work. As a matter of fact, a lot of films do something similar, either with acting style or character composition or overall tone and temperament. But in the case of a scary movie with at least a couple of compelling ideas, The Shrine decides to hedge its bets. In doing so, it loses its focus - and its frights.