Released in 2010, The Shrine is a Canadian horror film that packs a punch.
It seems like a straight-forward, standard flick with lots of clichéd tropes: people go missing, mysterious, unfriendly villagers, a feisty woman journalist desperate to get the scoop. Under all the seemingly tired façade, however, is just a little bit more. It’s a little bit skewed, a little bit unexpected, and more clever than just what’s on the surface.
Again, it seems simple enough. It starts off with a usual horror film scene: a man tied to a table with robed figures surrounding him. Despite his protests, and despite the audience having no reference to what in the world may be happening, he is sacrificed. Cut to the more familiar USA, where a journalist finds news stories about people going missing in Eastern Europe over many years. She wants to track down why; her boss tells her no. She and her assistant decide to go anyway, managing to dupe her boyfriend into tagging along.
As is the case in so many horror films, right off the bat you know these people are making a mistake. They head off into strange places, chasing phantoms, full of themselves and their purpose. The village the journalist has discovered is the source of the disappearances is small and isolated, and populated with folk who revere their religious leaders but are not in the least welcoming to outsiders. An odd fog—mentioned by one of the missing in his notebook—draws the American’s attention, and again, in spite of warnings and obvious signals to not go there, the women plunge headlong into the unknown.
The fog is dense and quiet, and separately the women stumble upon a demonic statue holding a stone heart. Both women, turned-around and confused, realize the statue is watching them—no, really, by turning its head as they move around it—and that stone heart is beating. They scramble out of the fogbank as quickly as they can.
From there, things get worse. The trio is lead to a crypt where they discover the missing people, all sacrificed with metal masks affixed to their faces. They’re locked in, even as the townspeople start to converge. They try to escape while being chased; one woman doesn’t make it, sacrificed like the others. The journalist and her boyfriend continue to try and escape, but the woman is not just pursued by villagers but her own mind as well: visions of demons in place of the people haunt her, otherworldly voices and suggestions filling her ears.
Eventually her boyfriend comes to realize, just as the viewers do, that his girlfriend has become cursed, and the angry villagers hunting them are actually trying to prevent her escape into the rest of the world. With this knowledge, her boyfriend helps them sacrifice her; holding the metal mask steady while it is ceremoniously pinned in place, killing her but stopping the entity possessing her.
What makes this more chilling than the typical horror film is twofold.
First, the trio of protagonists are in Eastern Europe (a fictional Polish village) so even though there is English spoken, the villagers speak to each other in a foreign tongue. None of their conversations are translated. As I don’t speak Polish, I can’t even tell you if that was what they were speaking, and neither could the main characters. Being surrounded by people but not being able to understand or communicate is a surprising, uneasy fear, but a completely valid one. Its roots are in xenophobia, but it’s more than that. It’s just part of the innate human psyche to need to be part of a familiar group, and taken out of that bubble of security can be terrifying. Although I don’t know if the filmmakers intended this, it works effectively to alienate the audience as well to creepy effect.
Secondly—and I know fans out there who don’t like this—the ending was ambiguous. Not elbowing-you-in-the-ribs ambiguous, like its telling you, “Of course there’ll be a sequel!”, but ambiguous in that nothing is really explained. There’s a fogbank with an evil statue in it, people who see the statue are possessed, and the villagers have a duty to put them down. The simple village folk aren’t being unfriendly for no reason; they do what they need to do. There is evil in the world, and it doesn’t have logic behind it.
That’s pretty scary stuff. Usually American audiences expect a backstory or rationale, even in horror films. To have the end of a film simply be “that’s just the way it is” is unnerving and almost foreign. It’s hard to wrap your head around.
The Shrine was a simple film (and I did figure out the twist that the villagers were the good guys all along before the reveal), but it was surprisingly effective and its chills lingered.