After today’s movie, I am glad that I’m done playing Netflix Roulette for the week… I feel like I’ve been on a steep downward trajectory since Pontypool and I shudder to think what may have come up after The Shrine… new week, new beginnings!
The Shrine follows three journalists (well, one reporter, one photojournalist (though, apart from one scene of set up (which I’m now thinking might have been filmed after the rest of the movie in order to try to fix some plot issues/character motivations) he never actually uses a camera), and an intern) travel to Poland to investigate the disappearance of a American tourist (several tourists have disappeared in the same area, but apart from mentioning these others they really only seem interested in the one). They come across strange people and strange doings. I won’t say much more than that since the film tries to construct itself around the skeleton of a mystery. However, I feel that it is my duty to warn you straight from the jump that unlike most mystery films/books most of your questions will not be answered. The filmmakers (director and co-writer Jon Knautz (along with co-writer Brendan Moore) do provide you with enough hints and implications to understand the basic outline of what’s going on… but that’s it… in the end you will be left with a single line of explanation… literally.
While taking a mystery-story approach to a horror film can be fun and has worked quite well in the past (look at Scream for a good example), in this case, it proves to be the film’s undoing. To begin, the first third of the film is used to set up the mystery, but, since it is done is such a rushed and haphazard manner, you aren’t invested by the time the three main character head off to Poland. In addition, as a viewer you can’t help to begin to wonder whether we are being introduced to these people just so the filmmakers had a way to up the body count. Next, since the filmmakers don’t want to reveal too much in order to not give the mystery away, it begins to seem like random things are happening for no reason at all. For example, several of the characters begin to see the faces of others transmute into monstrous/demonic visages and, while the use of practical special effects is welcomed, it simply becomes tiresome, since there is no explanation or seeming connection to the rest of the film (at least until the last fifteen minutes or so). Added to this is the issue of language. The main characters do not speak Polish and the filmmaker chooses not to use subtitles when the language is spoken. At first this may seem like an interesting choice (it worked quite well in The Damned) however, it quickly becomes frustrating. There are long stretches in the movie where individuals are speaking around (even through) our characters and we have to infer what is happening based on body language and facial expression, which these actors pantomime in spades. Also, based on “the twist” (which, you’ll see coming from a mile away), this choice seems especially cheap (you hopefully won’t see why, since you should not, for any reason, watch this movie). I have to say a little more about the “twist” (without giving it away). I get what the filmmakers were going for. However, it just doesn’t make any sense. It contradicts some of the decisions made by secondary characters earlier in the film. In addition, it hinges on the decision of one of the main characters… this character, again based on everything that came before, would never make this choice.
I would love to end it there, but there are a couple of other things that must be addressed first. The titular shrine is only on the screen for about fifteen seconds, which is weird, for two reasons. First, if this is supposedly the backbone of your film (as the title would suggest) why would you spend so little time with it. Second, if this is crux of the supernatural element of your film (again, as the title would suggest) and you’re trying to create mystery, why would you give it away in your title. That would be like naming your mystery novel the name of the killer with the subtitle “P.S. This Guy Is the Killer”. Finally, there are some production choices that are questionable. For example, in the scene with the supernatural fog, there is some of the worst green-screen effects I’ve seen since The Room (or any Syfy movie… ever). Similarly, while I’m guessing the filmmakers were trying to use the fog to create a sense of claustrophobia all it accomplishes is making it seem like everything was shot on a (tiny) soundstage… it is somewhat reminiscent of old episodes of Star Trek (minus the glorious matte paintings in the background). This scene… which, introduces the shrine (which, again is what the whole film apparently rests on) just feels cheap… which, is maybe the best way to describe the entirety of the film… cheap.