It can be tough following a successful film debut especially when your interests take your sophomore effort in a different direction from what worked so well the first time. Jon Knautz’ first feature was the horror comedy Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, and while the film remained low profile it served definite notice that he was a filmmaker to watch. It’s filled with creatures crafted with love and practical effects and combines the grue with broad comedy.
Knautz’ new film, The Shrine, retains some of that same solid effects work, but there’s not a funny moment to be found. Well, at least not an intentionally funny one.
A journalist, her best friend, and her reluctant boyfriend head to rural Poland to investigate the disappearance of an American backpacker, but they only find active and suspicious resistance from the locals. Further digging reveals a mysterious and creepy shrine in the fog-enshrouded woods and a deadly secret that they’d have been better off never learning. Now they must not only fight to survive but also answer the most important question of their lives… how many Polish people does it take to whack three stupid Americans?
A nameless guy is killed at the very beginning, but then it’s a long, death-less haul to the third act where everyone dies. Okay, not everyone, but it’s not a stretch to say that almost everyone we’ve been introduced to ends up sacrificed, ripped to shreds, disemboweled, broken, or impaled with something sharp.
A hanging pig carcass is magically transformed into bacon, a crossbow bolt is shot through a calf (the leg, not the baby cow), a girl gets a crash course in cutting, spikes are driven into some poor sap’s eyes, and a little boy ends up with his insides on his outside. Yes, that is as cool as it sounds.
For a film that introduces its female lead in the shower this is disappointingly sparse in the area of exposed flesh. We get a bit of side boob and that’s it! Sure the girls are stripped naked later and dressed in creepy gowns, but nothing aside from bare backs are shown. That’s okay though as there’s nothing sexy about forced nakedity.
If your girlfriend suggests you join her on a trip to a remote Polish village to “work on” your relationship tell that bitch goodbye. Or, curiosity killed the American backpackers.
As mentioned above Knautz eschews any attempt at humor with his follow up to Jack Brooks and instead focuses purely on the horror element. His efforts are met with varying degrees of success, but the biggest issue is unfortunately the film’s most important element… his script.
Basically, the setup and execution are rarely imbued with any degree of smarts or relevance. The characters are introduced with little reason to care about any of them, a factor that grows exponentially when they start making ridiculously poor decisions. Yes yes, it’s a horror film and stupidity is to be expected, but it doesn’t have to be. Jack Brooks is basically a comedy, but Knautz still showed a wit and intelligence both in the script and with his characters. There’s none of that in evidence here.
A strange, eerie, and unmoving wall of fog in the creepy forest? Sure, let’s enter it one at a time. A freaky little girl leading us into an enclosed, underground dungeon? Sure, let’s all walk in and let her lock the door behind us. I could go on, but then I’d be tempted to point out the inanity of the film’s payoff and explanation.
Luckily for the film there are other elements here to enjoy, namely the effects and some solidly shot scenes of action and terror. One of the best occurs in a house where two of the protagonists are hiding out from the baddies along with a family they’ve taken captive. A brutal assault on the family is presented purely through sound effects and tense camerawork, and even though we see only the end result it’s a frightening and well done scene. A handful of action scenes are also shot fairly well as is our introduction to a bleeding statue (that resembles the cat creatures from Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers and goes on to serve little to no purpose), and Knautz makes a wise choice in not offering subtitles for his Polish townsfolk… it adds to the (albeit limited) tension when the viewers are just as disoriented and confused as the characters in this foreign land.
Knautz’ sophomore effort isn’t a failure, but it’s far from his charismatic and fun debut. Horror fans will enjoy the blood work and creature effects, but viewers hoping for a smart and thrilling ride are bound to be disappointed. The initial mystery and setup, Americans sticking their noses into the backwoods cultures of foreigners with terrible results, is nothing new and really needed a fresh take to help the film stand apart. Unfortunately that’s not in the cards here, and the brief bit of originality towards the end comes too little too late to mark it as a success.
The Shrine is currently available on demand from IFC Midnight.