Carmen (Cindy Sampson), an ambitious, young, Canadian journalist, follows the trail of a missing person last seen in a small Polish village called Alvania. Accompanied by her intern, Sara (Meghan Heffern), and her boyfriend, Marcus (Aaron Ashmore), Carmen encounters the inhabitants of the small village and begins to suspect them to be members of a Satanic cult and responsible for rash of disappearances. When they are chased out of town, Carmen leads the investigative team back into the woods and encounters a mysterious fog bank and a disturbing shrine hiding within.
The Shrine is an fascinating and unique twist on the Satanic cult sub-genre of horror films. It also plays around with the nature of the good-vs-evil stereotypes and demonic possession as well. Director John Knautz elicits a fair number of chills and scares as his cast begin to unravel the mystery of the small Polish village. He makes the most of his cast as well, who are able to keep the more absurd events down to earth and maintain a presence of normalcy when things get supernatural – at least until they no longer need to. The film has strong moments of atmosphere and menace, especially when encountering the misty covered forest and the imposing group of Avanian priests. The effects are well done and reserved for this kind of film and they get bloodier than expected toward the end. The film’s strength is its well thought out and feverishly executed conclusion.
In a character driven movie like The Shrine, the quality of acting can make or break the film. Sampson, Heffern and Ashmore walk a fine line between pedestrian and competent. While they never really stand out, they never fall into abysmal. This helps keep the film afloat during the slower moments, but also keeps the movie from becoming a stand out, must see success. Aaron Ashmore, Jimy Olson from the Smallville TV series, begins the film limping along as the third wheel, providing the cautionary role, urging the characters to head back or to stay out of the mist. He doesn’t really get to shine until the final act when his character begins to piece together the mysteries that surround the town. Cindy Sampson, Dean’s baby momma from the Supernatural TV series, starts out strong, then dips terribly during the second act when it seems either she or the character can’t make sense of her own actions; however, she gets to go full tilt during the conclusion and brings some Bruce Campbell over-the-top campiness to the role and the film. Meghan Heffern is Sampson’s assistant and blindly follows her on her unapproved adventure. It’s a thankless role with little to do. She’s the “red shirt” of the group and she brings what she can. Unfortunately these are only tolerable performances, they neither elevate nor deprecate the film. If anything, Sampson deserves some recognition for bringing some well-timed wackiness into the conclusion.
John Knautz brings an oddly uneven pace to The Shrine. Beginning with a less than spectacular opening hook and a slow, clumsy build getting the characters to Alvania. The characters never get adequately developed and neither does the town or its inhabitants. Knautz just bullies his way through the finer points eager to get to the reveal of the shrine hidden in the mist. Once this happens, his direction takes a turn. The townsfolk are suddenly frightening instead of silly and the tempo increases. Things begin to get intense. The more creepy things need to be the better Knautz executes his shots. He really gets to let loose during the third act and he’s able to reel it back in for the conclusion. The ending is strong enough to keep this film from flopping. He’s an interesting director that gives the audience just a hint of what he’s capable of. His passion seems to lie in tone and atmosphere; if he can bring some of this passion to the quieter, more character-driven moments, he’ll really stand out.
There are a number of disturbing visuals that help The Shrine succeed: the shrine in the fog bank, the cult ceremonies and the gruesome kills. About midway into the story, Carmen, Sara and Marcus make their way into the secluded forest just outside Alvania chasing down a mysterious mist that doesn’t appear to move. Carmen and Sara make their way into the fog and encounter the titular shrine. At this point, The Shrine lets you know clearly what you’re in for – some supernatural hi-jinks. The shrine is exceptionally creepy and well done, chilling and haunting. Later, the group witnesses the Alvanian cult perform their middle age ceremonies where they slash open as their victims’ legs and arms and then hammer a spiked mask into their faces. Cringe worthy stuff. Later the film slips into Evil Dead territory when the true evil is unleashed and begins ripping apart a family, whose home our heroes are hiding in, and the Avanian monks who crash the demonic party. The killings are bloody and effective.
After a rocky start, The Shrine finds its footing and delivers a tense, exciting, wacky conclusion. The final twist is satisfying and does not feel forced in any way. The film is more enjoyable that expected, but could have used a more focused and entertaining beginning. The shrine itself is creepy as hell and the final act is full on madness and possessed mayhem. The film overcomes is shortcomings and ends up becoming a solid thriller. Not only is it worth a viewing, it is worth a second shot at it as well – although, skipping the first act may be in order. The Shrine is much better then much of its competition.
3 out of 5