Horror Double Feature: The Shrine and The Dead Room
Well, it’s that time again: time for me to browse Netflix for a couple decent-looking horror movies, watch ’em, and tell you guys what I thought about ’em. Today’s twofer features a Canadian demon-possession flick and a Kiwi haunted house tale, so let’s get right into it.
2010’s The Shrine was the second feature from writer/director Jon Knautz, a follow-up to his well-received horror comedy Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. The Shrine completely dispenses with the comedy, though, and goes in a far more serious and demonic direction, and while it’s not a great film by any stretch, it’s fairly entertaining and has a decent switcheroo ending that I admit I didn’t see coming.
In the cold open, we see a standard sacrificial setup, as a bunch of robed men strap a man dressed in a white gown to a table, then proceed to nail a metal mask to his face, Black Sunday style. After the title drop, we’re whisked away to the apartment of a squabbling couple: she is go-getting journalist Carmen (Cindy Sampson), he is photographer Marcus (Aaron Ashmore). Marcus is complaining that Carmen is so lost in her work that she doesn’t have time for him, Carmen gets defensive, Marcus gets pissed off and leaves.
In the meanwhile, Carmen has been following an intriguing lead on a story she wants to pursue. A backpacker named Eric Taylor (Ben Lewis) has gone missing while traveling in rural Poland, and Carmen’s research turns up the fact that several other tourists have disappeared from the same area over the past fifty years. She goes to her editor all jacked up about the story, but he thinks it sounds lame and wants her to go to Omaha to do a story about something far less lame: bee farming. True to her go-getting (and frankly irresponsible) nature, Carmen tells the editor that she’s totally going to Omaha to work on that bee thing, but instead she conspires with her intern Sara (Meghan Heffern) to go to Poland to look for the missing backpacker.
I have to say, I got kinda hung up at this point in the plot, because if Carmen was using an expense account from the company to pay for her travel (which I would assume she would be; what journalist can afford to drop a few grand of their own money on three tickets to Poland at a moment’s notice?), then wouldn’t she get caught immediately for buying flights to Poland instead of Nebraska? And wouldn’t she have to check in with the editor while she was working on the story? And wouldn’t the farmer in Omaha who she was supposed to interview be calling the magazine to ask where Carmen was if she didn’t show up? Like, I know a lot of movies have journalists basically just running around willy-nilly working on stories with seemingly no policing of where they’re going or what they’re spending the company’s money on, but for some reason it seemed particularly egregious here.
Anyway, Carmen is somehow able to convince Marcus to come along on the trip to act as photographer, and she says that it will be good for their relationship, even though Marcus’s main complaint about their relationship was that her head was always in her work and she couldn’t ever turn it off. So why he’d want to go along with her on yet another work assignment which frankly sounds pretty dangerous is also kinda beyond me. But whatever.
Carmen and Sara visit the mother of Eric Taylor, who tells them that neither the American nor the Polish police give a single whiff of a fuck about finding her son, and she’s just glad that a journalist is actually willing to go over there to find out what happened to him. Mrs. Taylor gives Carmen Eric’s travel journal, which was in the luggage she was sent after it was found in some airport far away from where Eric disappeared. Carmen says this was also the case in the other disappearances; that the vanished people’s luggage would randomly turn up at various airports around Europe.
Before they leave on their trip, Carmen has a fairly creepy nightmare about Eric’s ghost turning up in her room with his eyes gouged out, screaming at her to “leave me alone.” Naturally, she does not heed this advice at all, much to her ultimate detriment.
The last entries in Eric’s journal reveal that he was in a small town in Poland called Alvania. He wrote that the people there were unfriendly and suspicious, and that there was a weird fog bank that never seemed to dissipate hovering over the trees. The final entry detailed Eric’s decision to go see what the mysterious fog was all about.
So Carmen, Marcus, and Sara arrive in Alvania, and find the locals just as mistrustful and potentially-murdery as advertised. They speak to a little girl called Lidia (Julia Debowska), who seems to recognize the photo of Eric they show her, but the trio are then run off by a burly blond farmer named Henryk (Trevor Matthews), who waves his butcherin’ knife at them and tells them to beat cheeks, which they wisely do, at least temporarily. On their way out of town, they notice the strange fog that Eric talked about in his journal.
Marcus thinks it’s about time to call the whole thing a wash, but of course Carmen can’t let it go. It comes to light that she lied to Marcus and told him that the magazine had sent her on this story, rather than it just being Carmen going all rogue reporter, and then he gets doubly pissed when he finds out that Sara was in on the deception too. Carmen begs him to follow the story through, because she says if she goes back to the U.S. with no story at all then her career is basically over, even though I’m pretty sure it would be over anyway after her editor finds out that she misappropriated company funds to go off on a little adventure that he specifically told her not to go on, but again, whatever. Marcus, shockingly, does not laugh in her face and turn the car right around, but is all like, fine, we’ll drive back to that fog bank and see what that’s all about.
The fog in the woods is super dense and doesn’t move, even though it’s a windy day. The three of them debate about whether they should go in it or not, but then Sara, seemingly under some kind of trance, wanders off into it. She’s gone for a really long time, and finally Carmen says she’ll go in after her, admitting that since she (Carmen) is the one who got them into this situation, then she should be the one to go poking through the spooky mist.
Sara makes her way out of the fog after Carmen has gone in, and she seems disoriented and has a scratch on one cheek, but she won’t tell Marcus what she saw in there. Meanwhile, Carmen is wandering around in the fog for a time before coming across a statue of a demon that sort of looks like Pazuzu just hanging out in the smoke. She takes a couple pictures of it, but then sees that its head changed position while she wasn’t looking, and then it starts to bleed from its eyes and mouth, and the stone heart in its hand begins to beat. She runs the hell out of the fog and shares a meaningful glance with Sara, who tells Carmen that she saw the statue too.
Shortly afterward, Lidia finds them in the woods and tells them that she knows where Eric is. She leads them to a sort of basement-like structure where the trio discover a whole bunch of coffins containing shriveled corpses wearing white gowns and having metal masks nailed onto their faces. One of the bodies is obviously Eric, identified by a distinctive tattoo on the back of his hand. As they’re checking out the dead people, Lidia unsurprisingly locks the three of them in the basement, but they manage to escape.
The unfriendly locals find them and give chase; Sara is hit in the calf with a crossbow bolt, and eventually all three are knocked out with chloroform and tied up. At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that this was gonna go in a Hostel-like direction, as I did, but I’m glad to say that it actually takes something of an unexpected turn.
The women are separated from Marcus, and are taken to the titular shrine where they are stripped and put into the telltale white gowns. Marcus is hauled off and held at gunpoint, forced to dig what is presumably a grave. Back at the shrine, Carmen is put in a cage while Sara gets strapped to the table from the beginning of the movie. The robed dudes around her make big cuts in her arms and slice her Achilles tendons, then out comes the Black Sunday mask. Before Sara dies, we see the robed guys from her point of view and they all look like demons.
Back at the grave, Marcus manages to whack his captor with a shovel and grab his gun. He runs to the shrine, just in time to see the dead Sara being put in a wooden coffin. He sees that Carmen is still alive and is able to bust her out. The two of them run to a house near the edge of the village, where Marcus trains the gun on the family within and tells them that he just needs the keys to their truck so they can escape. The family seems terrified at the sight of Carmen in her white gown, and we soon find out why: the little boy in the house, Dariusz (Connor Stanhope), can speak a little English, and tells Marcus that Carmen is now evil because she has seen the statue in the fog.
Sure enough, Carmen begins acting all possess-y, seeing the family as demons, seeing objects moving around on their own. Before you can say Regan MacNeil, Carmen has gone full-on red-eyed murder-devil, and brutally slaughters the poor family, even the kid, tearing all their intestines out for good measure.
The robed guys turn up at the house and try to exorcise her, but Carmen uses her new demon powers to kill a bunch of them too, including the main priest, Arkadiusz (Vieslav Krystyan). Henryk, taking over the mantle from the dead priest, manages to force Carmen down to the floor and get a metal mask poised over her face. Marcus, finally understanding why these sacrifices are necessary (and maybe glad to get rid of his bitch-ass girlfriend whose reckless ambition got them into this mess in the first place), helps out by holding Carmen’s head still so Henryk can hammer the mask in place and kill the demon.
Afterwards, Marcus is allowed to leave, since he did not go into the fog and hence did not contract the demon cooties. Henryk tells Marcus that the village has been under this curse for ages and that there’s nothing they can do about it, save for warning people away. So even though the villagers were portrayed as the bad guys at first, it turned out they didn’t have a choice; if people didn’t heed their warnings and went into the fog anyway, demons would possess them and they would have to be dealt with before shit got out of hand.
I really liked that the movie played with the audience’s expectations, reversing the common “murdery small-town foreigners” trope, and I really did like the scene where Marcus finally understands the whole deal and steps in to help the villagers kill his possessed girlfriend. The gore in this was also pretty fun, particularly the slaying of the family near the end, and the demon faces were fairly creepy. The special effects were mostly good, though the green-screened fog bank sequence looked a little hokey, and the way the shots were lit seemed flat and not all that visually interesting.
But besides that, I think the movie suffered quite a bit from its main characters making such boneheaded decisions and being so generally unlikable. You could argue that since the investigating Americans were sort of ultimately the bad guys, then making them unlikable was a deliberate directorial choice, but honestly, I think the ending when Carmen gets sacrificed would have had a lot more emotional impact if you had liked her or Marcus at all, if you had any sympathy for their situation, or if you believed that they loved (or even liked) each other. As it was, I didn’t buy them as a couple because all they did was snipe contemptuously at each other, so when Marcus was obliged to help sacrifice Carmen I was like, “Eh, good riddance.” It was really her monumental stupidity that got Sara killed anyway (Sara being pretty much the only sympathetic character, even though she wasn’t given much to do other than looking young and vulnerable), and the fact that Carmen wouldn’t back off of the story even when it was clearly getting dangerous suggested that she gave way more of a shit about her career than she did her boyfriend or her intern, so fuck her, basically. She pretty much got what she deserved for not leaving well enough alone.
So all in all, not a bad movie, but sort of a frustrating one. Watch it for the decent gore, the relatively brisk pace, and the interesting plot inversion, and just try to ignore the rest.
The second film in the double feature was much better in my opinion, though it seems to have gotten some mixed reviews. 2015’s The Dead Room was directed by Jason Stutter and was apparently based on an urban legend about a haunted farmhouse in New Zealand. Though the movie has a pretty standard plot about a group of ghost hunters investigating a supposedly haunted property, I really liked the slow build-up of the tension, and the fact that it was creepy without really showing very much or explaining anything until the end.
In many ways, The Dead Room is similar in setup to the classic 1973 flick The Legend of Hell House (which the GoH and I did a funny retrospective about here). You have the young psychic, Holly (Laura Petersen), who is very intuitive and truly believes in the persistence of personality after death. You have the crotchety old parapsychologist Scott (Jeffrey Thomas), who believes in the paranormal but is intensely skeptical, and thinks it’s all caused by energy that can be dispersed with a machine of his own invention. You have the petty sniping between the two of them as they struggle to find some common ground with their differing approaches to the supernatural. Stuck in between the two is the third member of the team, friendly tech guy Liam (Jed Brophy), who just wants to capture some evidence and move on to the next case.
The ghost busters are hired by an insurance company to determine if there is actual paranormal activity at the property, since the family who had been living there suddenly fled, leaving all of their stuff behind, including half-eaten plates of food on the table, all their baby supplies, and their three parakeets. The team settle in for their several-day stakeout, setting up their equipment and investigating the house. Psychic Holly makes her way through the rooms, but finds it strange that she doesn’t feel anything of a paranormal nature at all. Scott thinks the family who took off are trying to scam their insurance company, and doesn’t really think they’re going to find anything of note.
At first, it would seem that Scott is correct, because nothing really happens the entire first day the team is there. But late that night, at 3:00 a.m., the front door opens by itself, some footsteps are heard in the hallway, and a light fixture swings a bit. The team actually sleep through this first manifestation, but the following morning, they notice that the motion camera caught the door opening, and then seemed to follow some unseen thing through the hall. Scott brushes it off, thinking it was just a draft, but Liam and Holly aren’t so sure.
The following night, again at 3:00 a.m., a loud bang awakens everyone in the house, and this time they all see the door opening, hear footsteps, and see the light swinging. Holly claims she sees a figure walking toward them and standing in front of her, a giant of a man, she says, but neither of the men see him, and though Liam believes that she sees the ghost, Scott doesn’t really buy it, though he can’t deny that there is some pretty inexplicable activity going on.
The next day, they go from room to room trying to make contact with the spirit, but at first they aren’t really getting anything. Scott is disappointed, because even though they captured a few things on film, it was nothing all that impressive, and he’s still half-believing that there could be a rational explanation. Holly begins to feel a drastic temperature drop, but again, the men do not experience it, and their instruments don’t read any change. She also claims that the air feels different, and Scott gets exasperated because her feelings are subjective and he wants something concrete.
At last, Scott determines that the battery in his EMF meter is dead, and when he replaces it, he gets a reading through the roof, bolstering Holly’s intuition that something is present. Curiously, the reading is ridiculously strong everywhere in the house except for one room at the end of the hallway (which I’m guessing is the titular “dead room”).
That night, the 3:00 a.m. manifestation occurs again, but this time the spirit is far more aggressive and threatens Holly, busting holes in the wall just behind her head. She and Liam want to leave, but Scott tells them that ghosts have never harmed anyone, that all the spirit can do is scare them. He wants to stay and gather more evidence, and hopefully be able to test the machine he built, which is supposed to disperse ghosts using infrasound. Liam and Holly are frightened, but agree to stay a little longer.
Unfortunately, it seems the ghost really doesn’t want them there, because it starts breaking windows and showering the team with glass, chucking furniture at them, and generally being a supernatural dick. The only thing the team can do to get away from the onslaught is hide in the dead room, which the ghost cannot enter for some reason.
At last, Scott decides it’s time to try out his infrasound ghost-be-gone machine, and just like in The Legend of Hell House, it actually seems to work. Holly creeps through the house after the machine has done its job, and she’s surprised that the mean male ghost seems to have dissipated. The smug Scott calls up the insurance company, tells them that not only do they have evidence that the haunting was real, but they also completely took care of the problem, making the house livable for the exiled family once again.
But this is a horror movie, so you know things aren’t going to be resolved quite so easily. While they are packing up their equipment, Liam notices a strange, freezing cold spot on one of the walls in the dead room. Wanting to be thorough, they bust a hole in the wall and discover a ladder leading down to a secret room. In said room, they find the mummified remains of a woman chained to a chair, again harking back to the secret chamber that contained the preserved body of Emeric Belasco in The Legend of Hell House.
The team calls the police to deal with the body, but when the cops descend to the secret chamber, they don’t find the corpse. Uh-oh. Sure enough, moments later, Holly’s eyes go white as though she is possessed, the cops get flung against the walls and presumably killed, and chaos ensues. Holly informs the team that the belligerent male ghost that Scott’s machine got rid of was only trying to scare them out of the house to protect them from the other really mean ghost, the woman in the secret room, who ends up killing every damn person in the movie.
There were actually a lot of things I really liked about The Dead Room. I loved that it took its time, leaving everything kind of low-key and ambiguous throughout the first half, lulling you into a sort of trance as you just watched this paranormal team doing a routine investigation, catching a few minor things, but nothing really crazy. The film showed a lot of restraint, but left just enough tension that you weren’t really sure if or when something bad was going to happen or what it would be.
The characters were all really likable right from the start, and had a good rapport with one another that made you instantly believe that they had done a bunch of these investigations together. Their characters were given personalities organically, without really giving much back story, which kept things simple enough that the plot wasn’t bogged down with exposition, but kept the characters appealing enough that you cared what happened to them.
I also really liked that a lot of stuff wasn’t shown, which I think made the movie creepier. When they find the mummified woman in the basement, for example, the viewer is not shown her face; we only see the characters react to seeing it. Likewise, the male ghost is never shown except for one brief shot where he’s merely a vague shadow coming down the hallway. While a lot of reviews I read complained that the movie was too slow and derivative and not scary enough, I thought the fact that it stayed fairly simple and grounded helped a lot with making it eerie and more intriguing. I could have done without the final Paranormal Activity-style shot of the scary female ghost rushing at the camera, but all in all, I found it a nicely atmospheric and pleasantly tense addition to the haunted house subgenre, despite it being nothing terribly original.
That’s all for now, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.