The Shrine (2010): Polish Horror with a Twist

Still from The Shrine
Directed and co-written by Joe Knautz, the 2010 Polish themed horror film with a twist, The Shrine which is his second feature length film, tells the story of a journalist who is pursuing what she believes to be the next big story. Starring Aaron Ashmore (Killjoys, Warehouse 13), Cindy Sampson (Swamp Devil, The Last Kiss) and Meghan Heffern (Chloe, What If) it could be seen as a message to those who aspire to greatness, “Be careful of what you wish for” or “Don’t you think the bee story would have been safer?”

Carmen (Sampson) is a junior journalist who wrote an expose that caused a lot of problems for her publication. Her punishment is to be given mediocre and banal stories to cover. Somewhat ironically, given the mysterious virus that is killing off honeybees in the real world, she is told to investigate and write about two separate bee keepers whose bees have suddenly and mysteriously died. Finding the prospect of talking to a couple of “bee farmers” fairly dull, she tosses the assignment in the bin.

The fledgling reporter has been following her own leads and she has discovered a possible link between a local lad who has gone missing from Poland. Like others before him, the boy’s luggage showed up in an airport miles from his last known destination, a small town in Poland, and Carmen talks her boyfriend Marcus (Ashmore) and her intern Sara (Heffern) into going to the village and learning what really happened to the missing local man.

The three fly to the area and begin their investigation. They find a spot in the woods that the backpacker described in his last diary entry. A place where smoke or fog hangs in one spot. After being chased out of the small town by the locals, Carmen, Sara and Marcus double back and check out the smoke filled copse.

Sara goes into the fog while Marcus and Carmen argue. She disappears and Carmen goes in after her intern. While enveloped by the dense fog, she finds a statue of a large snarling creature clutching a heart in one clawed hand. She takes a picture and as she moves to get another shot, the statues head followers her.

This is an interesting film. Starting off as more a mystery than horror, it has all the signposts of turning into another Hostel or something very similar. However once the protagonists reach Poland, it ceases to be a mystery and goes slowly and effectively into a sort of quasi-religious horror film.

The filmmakers chose to keep subtitles off the screen when the local villagers are talking each other and the visiting Americans in Polish, although they think the reporters are British. “English?,” asks one man, “Go back to England, English, nothing for you here.” The lack of subtitles keeps the viewer in the same space as the three young American’s who cannot speak the language.

The Shrine is not too dissimilar to Ashmore’s twin brother Shawn’s horror outing in The Ruins two years earlier, it looks like the hostile townies are trying to keep the outsiders out, at first, and later to keep them there…permanently.

The twist at the ending is not earth shattering but impressive enough and although the film does end rather abruptly, but not too ambiguously, this works. The combination of no subtitles and the short chopped off ending puts the audience firmly in the shell shocked shoes of Aaron Ashmore’s character. Quite an entertaining horror film that scores a full 3.5 out of 5 and is well worth a look. True horror fans will enjoy this little gem. Steaming on Netflix at the moment.

A Simple Plan by Scott Smith: Not so Simple

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A Simple Plan is Scott Smith’s first book. It caused a lot of fuss when it hit the book stands and after reading it, I can see why. I’ve actually reversed into this debut novel of Smith’s because I read The Ruins first and fell in love with his story telling abilities based on that novel.

The book has been called “A compulsive thriller which also happens to be a beautifully written and original work of art” Robert Harris. I believe him. It’s such an accurate description of Smith’s writing style and of the story itself that the publishers have pasted it across the front of the paperback version of the book.

If you look at the Wikipedia plot description, it is a bit too simple, straightforward and a little misleading. From Wikipedia: Three men find an airplane crashed in a forest. The pilot is dead and the cockpit contains a gym bag with $4.4 million in one-hundred-dollar notes. They decide to keep the money, dividing it equally, but their plans go wrong when others come close to discovering their secret, resulting in multiple murders.

Now that description would catch my interest, but it is not what the book is really about.

Hank Mitchell lives in a rural area of America. He is married and his wife Sarah is expecting their first baby. His brother Jacob, a behemoth of a man, is one of life’s under achievers. Jacob’s best friend is drunken wastrel Lou. Lou doesn’t like Hank and the feeling is mutual.

Hank and Jacob’s parents commit suicide when the farm that their father owned got into financial difficulties. The two brothers have little in common and don’t even like each other very much. Hank is an accountant and the only bright spark in his life is his pregnant wife.

Hank, Jacob and Lou make an uneasy trio of men thrown together by familial ties, circumstance and financial similarities. Hank, despite being the only employed member of this little group is basically easily led and taken advantage of. He is not strong enough morally or physically to make a stand for himself.

Then one snowy morning all three men are in a pickup truck when Jacob’s dog (a male named Mary Beth) jumps out of the truck to chase a fox. Both fox and dog disappear into the woods and the men go to find Mary Beth. Once in the woods they find a small crashed aircraft. They also find a dead pilot and duffel bag stuffed with money.

Hank takes control of the situation and decides that if they hold onto the money for six months it will then be safe for them to split the cash and no one will be the wiser. With explicit instructions to not tell anyone about what they’ve found, Hank becomes the “keeper” of the money.

Stress, dire financial situations, lack of secrecy and trust all begin to take their toll on the three men and as events snowball out of control, things turn murderous.

This story had me gripped from the first page. Smith paints a brilliant picture of small town life and the people who inhabit it. His painting of the three (four counting Sarah) main characters made them so real and complete I felt badly for them when things got so out of hand.

Hank was the main protagonist and it doesn’t take long to see that he really is not up to the task at hand. Sarah becomes a big player in the action by first acting as his sounding board and then later taking a more active role in events.

This tale of greed, fear and mass murder was made into a film in 1998 by Sam Raimi, starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda, if it is one-quarter as good as the book, I have to see it.

This was a brilliant book. A real 5 out of 5 stars for originality and for characters that leapt off the page at you, they seemed so real. If you don’t read any thing else this year, read this book.

While the title may be A Simple Plan, the story itself is not so simple.

Author Scott Smith.
Author Scott Smith.

The Ruins by Scott Smith: Death by Mayan’s

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I first heard of this book “through the backdoor” as it were. I’d seen the film first. I can somewhat hazily remember liking it. It wasn’t anything to write home about, as far as I can remember, but the film did strike a chord with me. I discovered that it had been made from Scott Smith’s (no relation) book of the same name.

I discovered the book whilst perusing the many available books on Amazon. My eye caught a blurb by the horror Meister himself Stephen King. He gave what I thought was a glowing recommendation of the book. That to me was a seal of approval and I then ordered a hardcopy of the book.

It was only after getting said book that I realised that the glowing recommendation was for his first book, A Simple Plan. Upon learning this disturbing and misleading fact, I raised my clenched fists to the sky and cried, “Damn you Amazon!”

Not really. I did, though, mutter a slight curse at my obvious gullibility and no, I do not want to buy prime real estate in the swamplands of Florida… Or do I?

I haven’t read Mr Smith’s first novel, but I am going to since I trust Stevie King implicitly. But for now, I’ll just focus on the book I have read.

The Ruins is set in Mexico (obviously since the Mayan’s don’t come from any other part of the globe) and it follows the deathly journey made by a group of young people who are just starting out in the world. Jeff and Amy are medical students. Stacy and Eric are happy-go-lucky kids who have drifted together. Eric has been hired as an English  teacher and Stacy has no idea what she is going to do.

This group of four have been joined by Heinrich and Mathias, two German men who happen to be in Mexico on holiday and three Greeks who, since no one can speak the language are referred to as Don Quixote, Pablo and Juan. When Heinrich runs off to some Mayan ruins in pursuit of a female student who is working at the site and then seemingly vanishes, Mathias decides to find him.

Jeff, Amy, Eric, Stacy and Pablo decide to accompany him on what appears, on the face of it, to be a lark and an adventure. Unfortunately for this small band of “explorers” when they eventually find Heinrich they also find something deadly amongst the ruins. After being trapped on the archeological site by neighbouring villagers, the group must try to survive until help arrives.

Jeff, the Eagle Boy Scout, is the leader and he must struggle to keep them alive as well as try to find a way out of their deadly predicament.

This was a great read. I honestly cannot remember if the film adapted from the book was a faithful representation of the story. I’ve down-loaded the film and I’ll watch it soon so I can make an accurate comparison.

Smith does a good job of fleshing out all his characters and paints a great picture of the young people who don’t let language barriers stop them from connecting with other people.  Unfortunately this lack of language skills is what helps to trap the happy-go-lucky group in the ruins.

The only drawback to the book was some of the actual characters themselves. I bonded with Jeff and with the “spacey” Stacy but none of the others had traits that made them personable enough to connect with. And the “foreigners” like Mathias and especially Pablo, did not have enough development either because of the language barrier (Pablo) or lack of character information due to personality (Mathias).

Despite my “disconnection” with some of the main players, I did feel a lot of empathy for the group and their fight for survival. Smith has also introduced a “Big Bad” that was properly creepy and downright scary! And this big bad was nasty and cruel. I can’t tell you what it is, you’ll have to read the book to get that. But it not something you’ll forget about after you’ve read it.

A real 5 star book with just a couple of 3 or 4 star moments. Keep an eye out for Mr Scott Smith, both his books thus far have made a bit of a wave in the literary community. While I try to chase down a copy of his first foray into the horror/suspense/thriller genre, I’ll be looking for any new books he may release.

Author Scott Smith (no relation)
Author Scott Smith (no relation)