Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Shrine: An Outline Is Not A Story

There are only so many stories and characters under the sun. If you want to be reductive, you can boil it all down to man versus man, man versus self, man versus nature. My sister-in-law used to write sitcoms, and she says that all sitcom plots can be boiled down to "Dad doesn't know that I'm not the mayor." So attempts to subvert plot or narrative tropes are, to me, generally a good thing. Especially in the horror/thriller/various other scary movies genre, where formula is sometimes embraced enthusiastically in the quest for the next franchise. Oh, sure, sometimes this approach can bite you on the ass. Some folks don't like not getting exactly what they expect, and sometimes you can end up typecast. But generally, new ways of telling old stories inject hybrid vigor into what could otherwise become an inbred art form.

Of course, in all of your ambition to defy expectations, you need to remember pacing, mood, setting, character motivations, and getting your audience to care about your protagonists. You need to remember to actually tell a story.

This is where The Shrine falls down, and falls down hard.

Carmen is an ambitious young reporter, and we know this because she keeps bitching that her editor won't send her out on bigger stories, and this is what ambitious young reporters do. She's also got a photographer boyfriend who complains about how her ambition is negatively affecting her life, so she's ambitious. She also works with a young, naive intern, and we know this because we get told that the intern is young and naive. So I think you see where I'm going with this.

Ambitious reporter Carmen comes to her editor with an idea for a story about people who have disappeared while backpacking through rural Poland. 5 people over 50 years, all missing from around the same general area, and an American college student most recently. Her editor pooh-poohs this idea, preferring instead that she follow up on the disappearance of local bee colonies. She dismisses this as fluff, but honestly, I'm pretty sure this is way scarier than a few missing backpackers. So she promises to follow up on the bee story and then talks to the mother of the missing backpacker, looks through his personal effects, and promptly takes off for Poland, intern and boyfriend in tow.

Once our Scooby Gang gets to the backpacker's last known location (completely unequipped for a trip through rural Poland), they discover a mysterious fog rising out of the forest, hanging totally still in the air. Needless to say, the trio plows into the forest, and soon Carmen and Sara the Intern get lost in the fog. At the center of the fog is one creepy-ass statue, and Carmen's discovery of the statue is probably the creepiest and most effective part of the whole movie. It's once Carmen and Sara leave the fog that things get really ill, as Carmen and Sara start seeing monsters everywhere, and a bunch of dudes in robes come after the protagonists.

If I've made the beginning of the movie sound mechanical and clich├ęd, that's because it is. Not a moment goes by when we aren't told something instead of being shown it. What's worse, is that once we're told something, we don't really get much else on it. It feels like the majority of the movie is a series of establishing shots, signifiers of a type of scene instead of being the scene itself. Here is the part where we introduce you to the characters, here's the part where one of them experiences a foreboding omen, here is the part where the are characters in danger, here is the part where we suddenly reverse your expectations, here is the part where we explain the whole thing. Not a lot of narrative thread connecting each bit, not a lot of depth, just sort of a series of parts.

Basically, I walked away from this feeling like I just saw a treatment or highlight reel for a longer movie. It's a sketch, it's the major story beats, but there's no reason to care about the protagonists, no reason to get really frightened for them, no real sense of shock when our expectations are upended. Even the conclusion is pretty much just a few lines to the effect of "yeah, we're cursed, but what are ya gonna do?" It's tremendously unsatisfying. It's uneven on a technical level, with some beautifully-shot sequences alongside glaringly obvious digital and practical effects. I don't like to harp on things like that, but it was noticeable enough to take me out of the story, such as it was.

There's a reasonably good idea for a movie here, though I don't know that the plot twist is really all that revolutionary at the end of the day. But more importantly, that's all this is - an idea. The characters don't feel like people who actually have lives in a world where horrible things can happen, and it's not much of a world, for that matter. It's inescapably people on sets saying lines - competently, don't get me wrong - but not much more. Having ideas about what should happen in a movie isn't the same thing as convincing the audience that they are happening or could happen, and that's the difference between an outline and an actual story.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

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