Goin’ Down the Road…to Hell!

The Shrine: written by Jon Knautz, Brendan Moore, and Trevor Matthews; directed by Jon Knautz; starring Aaron Ashmore (Marcus), Cindy Sampson (Carmen), Meghan Heffern (Sara), and Trevor Matthews (Henryk) (2010): Surprisingly well-made Canadian straight-to-DVD cheapie ($1.5 million budget according to IMDB, less than the cost of one episode of an hour-long American drama TV series). It’s another Bad Road Trip movie, though in this case the road trip has a point: an ambitious, up-and-coming journalist (Carmen) wants to discover what happened to a vanished, young American traveller somewhere in Poland.

Things are a bit rough for the first 20 minutes, but pick up once we leave America (well, America as played by Pickering, Ontario) for the rural wilds of Poland (well, the rural wilds of Poland as played by Pickering, Ontario). The people doing the accents and the Polish sound pretty convincing to this non-Polish speaker.

More importantly, there’s real cleverness at work with the set design, make-up, and props. There’s a dreadful mask-thing whose purpose only becomes completely clear at the end of the film. There’s also some nice moments inside a fog bank, and a great scene involving a demonic statue. The film also plays with subjective POV in a relatively sophisticated way.

The ending, while undermined a bit by too much footage of prosthetics that look less and less real the longer the camera lingers, ultimately satisfies and makes sense of the proceedings. My only major caveat is that the prologue gives away things that would better be discovered as the narrative unfolds. The actors are convincing, and while their lines don’t sparkle, they get the job done. There are echoes of Robert E. Howard’s classic horror story “The Black Stone” here, among others. And the film-makers restrain themselves from offering too lengthy an explanation for the goings-on. As in, one spoken line! Recommended.

Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon): written by Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester, and Cy Endfield, based on the short story “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James; directed by Jacques Tourneur; starring Dana Andrews (Dr. John Holden), Peggy Cummins (Joanna Harrington) and Niall MacGinnis (Dr. Julian Karswell) (1957): It’s too bad there’s no way to see the pure Charles Bennett version of this movie: producer Hal E. Chester added some unfortunate bits (including the infamous demon close-up which doesn’t frighten anyone) and probably subtracted others.

What’s left is still a fine horror movie with outstanding performances throughout. It isn’t patricularly faithful to the M.R. James short story it adapts, though most of the logic of the supernatural is kept intact. Niall MacGinnis is a stand-out as the mostly malevolent magician, who nonetheless dotes on his mother and seems to be mostly, charmingly harmless unless you disagree with him.

The long-shots of the demon are relatively effective, though its more sinister manifestations remain, in master horror-director Tourneur’s hands, shadows and fog and noises off-screen. One of the oddities of Chester’s decision-making with the demon lies in the fact that it’s smaller than a man in James’ story but a looming, King-Kong-sized giant here. Sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to horror. Recommended.

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