The Shrine

The Shrine


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Jon Knautz's first feature, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (2007), may have been clunky around the edges and displayed some decidedly cheesy-looking creature costumes, but these shortcomings – all products of a very low budget – were turned into a virtue by some brilliantly deadpan performances and an hilarious script that fully embraced its B status with broad, pastiche-like humour.

Unfortunately, for his follow-up feature The Shrine, Knautz has abandoned the one thing that made his debut work so well – the comedy – and what remains is a mirthless hybrid of different subgenre elements that, though merged with a twist, remain resolutely bland to the end.

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Everything that is wrong here – the dull stock characters, the derivative plotting, Polish folk obviously played by non-Poles and Polish settings obviously not shot in Poland – could have been elevated by some sharp parodic writing and self-aware wit, as if to show that the filmmaker was in on the joke of how well-worn his material is. Instead we get a po-faced, poor imitation of a standard straight-to-video horror flick. And Knautz, it turns out, does not quite have the directorial chops to turn hoary, hackneyed fare like this into something distinctive and well-crafted – whereas the likes of genre-master Ti West (The House Of The Devil, The Innkeeepers) might at least have breathed some life into these old bones.

Carmen (Cindy Simpson) is a tenacious journalist with a track record for getting in trouble for her 'controversial' stories – and so, against the explicit instructions of her editor, she follows a lead to the place where she believes student Eric Taylor (Ben Lewis), along with several other American tourists over the decades, had vanished – and where we already know from the prologue that Eric was ritually murdered on an altar by some robed locals.

Nothing will stop Carmen pursuing her story - and her destiny - but nonetheless her cameraman/boyfriend Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) sticks around as the repetitive, if unheard, voice of reason and retreat ("Carmen, leave it alone, let's just go", "We never should've come here, Carmen, this whole fucking trip was a mistake," etc), while intern Sara (Meghan Heffern) is clearly along for the ride as an expendable early victim.

The setting of their investigation – a small, unfriendly fictional village in rural Poland whose name (Alvainia) evokes yet another Eastern European nation – seems to be aligning this film with the Hostel mode, wherein American tourists fall prey to the evil otherness of the old country.

Sure enough, after getting lost in an unnatural mist in the forest, seeing a Pazuzu-like statue there, and discovering Eric's desiccated corpse in an underground chamber, the three Americans will find themselves being chased by tool-wielding locals, with torture porn – or something like it - definitely on the agenda. Knautz, however, will soon be (kind of) challenging our (supposed) prejudices, using a shift in subgenre to turn on its head the whole question of who exactly is wicked aggressor and who hapless victim.

With buff rustics running around who resemble no one so much as the rubes from Invasion Of The Blood Farmers (1972), and who evidently speak a rare Canadian dialect of (unsubtitled) Polish, The Shrine is just begging to be ridiculed by all involved. It is anyone's guess what made Knautz resist this temptation and instead play things so disarmingly straight – but the result is a joyless exercise in genre, where even the twist seems half-baked and underplayed, and is followed by a go-nowhere coda that serves only to drive home how little we care about any of these tourists or indeed about the mechanics of the plot in which they become trapped.

"Was this kid eating mushrooms by any chance?" asks Marcus, after hearing the last diary entry of Eric before he met his end. If Eric and the other Americans had indeed been partaking of hallucinogens, it might be possible to salvage something meaningful from their collective bad trip – but as things stand, the same question needs to be addressed to the filmmakers themselves. The Shrine is horror just going through the motions - dull and perfunctory, with nowhere near enough polish to match its broken Polish.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2012
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The Shrine packshot
Three journalists find themselves in danger when on the trail of a cult which just might be practising human sacrifice.
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Director: Jon Knautz

Writer: Jon Knautz

Starring: Aaron Ashmore, Ben Lewis, Meghan Heffern

Year: 2010

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Canada


Glasgow 2011

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