Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Thorns is one of those horror films which will hit a lot harder if you have been raised in or around Catholicism, or if you have a strong belief in Hell." | Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

At any Frightfest there is a certain subset of the audience which has a real appetite for gore, and for films which are unafraid of geoing to extremes in order to make their point. This isn’t Thorns’ only selling point but it’s definitely an area in which it’s aiming to make an impression – and that’s not easy in an age when a good deal comes down to money being poured into the development of impressive CGI. Director Douglas Schulze and his team are old school filmmakers, committed to practical effects, but here they prove that even on a low budget, they can make those hit home harder than anything the big studios have to offer.

To make this point early on, and establish the stakes for which he is playing, Schulze opens with a scene in which a man who is screaming about something being inside his head takes a shard of broken mirror and cuts his own eye. This has been regarded as one of the ultimate cinematic horrors ever since Un Chien Andalou, and ironically, it’s a shot which many viewers never see, because they blink or look away at the last second. That’s a shame because Schulze’s effect, like Luis Buñuel’s, is expertly constructed, and even though this time it’s in full colour, it’s hard to believe that one isn’t looking at the real thing. It’s a triumph of the art, and one of several such shots which make this film deserving of attention even though its plot is rather flimsy.

Copy picture

That plot concerns an ex-priest, Gabriel (Jon Bennett), who has been summoned to the remote Iron Mountain Observatory to investigate a mysterious signal from a deep space probe. The probe went offline years ago but recently transmitted an image which is thought by some to have major religious significance. After this arrived at the observatory, the observatory itself suddenly went silent, and a concerned archbishop (played by Pinhead himself, Doug Bradley) thinks that Gabriel is the right man to follow up.

He’s not the only religious figure to have taken an interest. As he investigates, Gabriel learns that the observatory team has been stalked for some time by a nun, Sister Agnes (Cassandra Schomer), who says that she has seen the dark planet and that the end of the world is coming. When he enters the observatory, he finds himself in a corridor lined with pages from the Bible which flutter when the wind blows along it, giving it a strange, organic texture. It is in the intermeshing of the organic and the technological, mechanical or architectural that Schulze finds much of his horror, as he simultaneously meshes physics and theology – though you can guarantee that you won’t find anything heavenly in this forbidding place.

Thorns is one of those horror films which will hit a lot harder if you have been raised in or around Catholicism, or if you have a strong belief in Hell. Elsewhere, it borrows from mythology and from cinematic tradition - Gabriel dreams of riding a white horse towards a large dark sphere. The line between dream and reality, natural and supernatural becomes increasingly blurred as the film progresses. This is very effective in places but could do with being more tightly paced. Once it begins to coalesce around a single individual (which is where the thorns come in at a physical level), it loses some of its existential weight and moves a little too far into Event Horizon territory.

The ending of the film fizzles out rather than landing a proper punch and there’s not much here that’s original, but Schulze is committed to his craft and it’s particularly impressive to see what he and make-up effects master Dan Phillips have achieved on a low budget. Thorns has a very specific set of film fans in mind, and if you’re one of them, you’re likely to know it from the poster. if visceral horror is your thing, you won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed on: 29 Aug 2023
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An ex-priest working for NASA is sent to investigate a remote observatory that went silent after receiving a mysterious radio signal from deep space. Upon arrival, he discovers the signal has opened a portal unleashing a thorned monster. Only by recovering his faith does he stand a chance of stopping it.

Director: Douglas Schulze

Starring: Doug Bradley, Cassandra Schomer, Jon Bennett, Bob Shumaker

Year: 2023

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US


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