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'Shadow People', a Low Budget Creeper, Is Low on Effects, High on Atmospherics

On making the most of a small budget with good acting -- and plenty of shadows.

Shadow People

Director: Matthew Arnold
Cast: Dallas Roberts, Alison Eastwood, Anne Dudek, Mariah Bonner
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2013-03-19

Shadow People is a spooky little movie that could have been much spookier, but still makes good use of its limited means to convey an unsettling story. With a basic storyline augmented with a clever mix of pseudo-"found" footage comprised of YouTube clips, interview tapes and news reports, the film carries a mask of real-world verisimilitude that does much to reinforce what is at heart a pretty thin storyline. With few shocks and no gore, it relies on a well-established sense of creeping dread for most of its effects. If it's unlikely to satisfy some hardcore blood 'n' guts aficianados, its clever structure and subtle take on horror may well appeal to those who don't ordinarily consider themselves fans of the genre.

The story revolves around late-night talk radio host Charlie Crow, who receives a call one night from a teenager who claims to be seeing shadowy figures around his bed. Initially dismissing the kid as a crank caller, Crow takes notice when the teen subsequently dies of unexplained causes. This causes him to do some investigating, leading him to the '70s experiements of a local college professor. The professor has died too, and strangely enough has a grave in the local cemetery, even though his death certificate records his body as having been cremated. Which leads to the obvious question: what, exactly, lies buried in that grave?

The answer to that question is intriguing, but not nearly so unsettling as it should have been. Shadow People falters badly in its third act; at a time when the creepiness and anxiety should have been ramping up, it settles for more sedate thrills and a weak ending.

Nevertheless, there are some good moments here. The frequent insertions of found footage—the police interviews, the news reports—keeps the viewer uncertain as to whether this is purely fiction or is in fact based on one of those "unsolved mysteries" that pepper our existence.

The character of Maggie, a college student who helps out Crow in his investigations, is well played by Mariah Bonner and comprises one of the most suspenseful sequences in the movie. On the other hand, was it really necessary to rip off (oh sorry, I mean pay homage to) the shower scene from Psycho? Apart from the rather obvious contrivance of showing us Bonner's naked backside (I'm not complaining, honest), the scene only serves to pull the viewer out of what is an otherwise effectively disturbing sequence.

Performances are strong throughout, lending this film a gravitas that many low-budget horror flicks lack. Dallas Roberts (The Walking Dead) winces and mopes and smokes his way through his scenes, equally convincing as the smooth-voiced late night radio host or the estranged dad trying to win respect and affection from his son. Alison Eastwood underplays her role nicely as the icy CDC investigator who thinks Crow is a crackpot, while the supporting players, including Bonner mentioned above, all avoid the scenery-chewing pitfalls so common to movies like this.

The picture quality on the DVD is very good, which is important, as the film's cinematography relies heavily on murky shadows and nervous handheld camera work. Apart from a few effectively-wrought moments, the film is relatively light on special effects. (One scene in which Crow stands in front of an open refrigerator, his shadow cast onto the blank wall behind him, is especially nail-biting.)

First-time director Matthew Arnold is clearly a believer in the "less-is-more" school of visual effects, knowing that the monsters dreamed up by the audience will likely be scarier than anything shown onscreen. He opts therefore to inculcate an under-your-skin queasiness that works well for the most part, though falls short a bit at the end.

Bonus features are few. There is a 20-odd-minute feature called "Shadow People: More to the Story", which consists of a couple of interviews about Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome—which plays an important part in the film—and tries to link this medical/scientific mystery to the supernatural goings-on in the movie. It's diverting enough, but doesn't add a great deal.

Viewers looking for a spooky movie with a veneer of realism, one that relies less on blood and intestines and more on mind-manipulation, ought to give Shadow People a try. It's not a perfect movie but it it's a good one, a film that tries to generate spooks through less-than-obvious means. In some ways it feels like a throwback to the atmospheric, old-style horrors of the past, like 1942's Cat People; the irony is that in looking backward, this movie almost feels like something new.


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