THE SHRINE (2010) is the second horror movie directed by Canadian Jon Knautz (pronounced “kuh-nots”), 32, whose first feature, the horror-comedy JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER (2007), co-starring Robert Englund, generated tremendous buzz for a debut effort and won several honours at the 2009 Fangoria Chainsaw Awards. THE SHRINE was an Official Selection at Screamfest 2010 and won the Audience Award at Fantasia 2010.
I was unaware of this enthusiastic critical response when I rented THE SHRINE. The DVD jacket highlights a blurb by Jason Bene of KILLER FILM, who raves that THE SHRINE is “a masterpiece that brings fear back to the horror genre,” which, before viewing the film, I assumed was simply hype. The DVD cover art is striking, displaying a woman whose face is concealed behind a strange metallic headgear. Blood streams down her white ceremonial gown. This had definite ‘scare-factor’ right from the beginning.
Unlike JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER, there are no big names in THE SHRINE. However, the high calibre of the performances by the troupe of relatively unknown young actors is one of the film’s unexpected strengths.
The story begins predictably enough. After a young American backpacker goes missing in Europe, three big-city journalists link his disappearance to a remote village in Poland (due to budgetary limitations, the Polish scenes were actually filmed near Toronto). The intrepid (perhaps foolhardy) journalists travel to Poland, hoping to uncover a big story revealing the backpacker’s fate and the reasons for similar unexplained disappearances near the same village. As the reporters/photographers slowly unravel the mystery, they are pursued by seemingly hostile locals, unaware – due to the language barrier – that the locals are not threatening them, but warning them to stay away. Unable to escape, the hapless journalists discover too late that the village holds a much darker secret than they could ever possibly have anticipated. I AM ROGUE webzine gushes: “The ending will blow you away!” and that’s no exaggeration.
There is a moment in the film, set in a fog-shrouded forest, that is so utterly creepy I couldn’t believe it was directed by such a young talent, whose maturity is evident in the careful character development, slow build-up, mounting sense of dread and elegant cinematography, with its total avoidance of shaky camerawork, rapid-fire editing and other distracting indicators of cinematic trendiness. Even the CGI effects are masterful, all the more remarkable for such a low-budget feature. The screenplay by Brendan Moore is devoid of attitude or glib modern speak. It is quite a literate script that draws one into the story.
Indeed, the sheer professionalism and high production values of THE SHRINE convinced me to check out JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER. JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER and THE SHRINE were produced by Brookstreet Pictures, an Ottawa-based film production company founded by Knautz and actor/producer Trevor Matthews, son of billionaire high-tech entrepreneur Sir Terence Matthews. Could Brookstreet Pictures become the next (real) Hammer Films?