Throughout my years as a horror fan, I’ve seen lots of films dealing with demons and/or the Devil himself; The Exorcist, The Omen, The Amityville Horror, The Entity, The First Power, so on and so forth. In the lion’s share of these films, the priest/reverend/holy man typically comes to do battle with the “evil force”…and summarily gets his ass handed to him, sometimes gift-wrapped. I realize that a film where an archangel showed up and simply obliterated all traces of said demonic power and everyone lived happily ever after would certainly be very short and likely pretty dull. Still, if we’re to accept the axiom that the forces of Good are at least as powerful (if not more so, depending on your beliefs) as the forces of Evil, then why is it that the “good guys” always seem to have such a difficult time? Are they being tested for worthiness? Is there some level of suffering they must reach before “good” steps in and gives them that shot o’ nitrous that takes them to victory?
I’ve always found myself thinking that, omitting the scenario above where some angelic force just annihilates the “evil”, wouldn’t it be great to see film with a priest that comes to lock horns with the devil…and comes not just to pray, but to kick ass?
An obscure little direct-to-video piece from the late nineties addresses this idea, but does so in a way that is both plausible and enjoyable; taken very peripherally from an even more obscure short story by none other than Bram Stoker, director Jamie Dixon brought us Michael Rooker as a jaded warrior-priest on the edge in his 1998 effort, Shadowbuilder.
We open with troubled priest Father Vassey investigating a rogue bishop, one who has turned from his faith and, along with some loyal followers, begun a strange, dark ritual. Entering the darkened warehouse where this impromptu cult is conducting its evil, the priest finds several blood sacrifices before he hears a final incantation as the cultists bind the spirit of a young boy to some dark purpose. Bursting into the room, Father Vassey shows his true nature, wielding twin pistols and making brutal but short work of the bishop and his acolytes; during this onslaught, he glimpses a fleeting darkness that seems to have shape and substance, but writes it off to the shadows of the building. A wallet he finds sends the padre to the town of Grand River, where he believes he will find the boy that was linked to the blasphemous ceremony…but something else has beaten the priest to the little riverside town, something made of (and able to manipulate) shadows, something that also seeks the boy. Its search will consume souls to build its strength, while its very presence corrupts the townsfolk into becoming a murderous mob; only the town nut, crazy Covey, seems to sense something is amiss. Vassey arrives just as this corruption is taking hold, and through fate or providence finds allies in both Covey and the town sheriff, Sam Logan, who just happens to be dating the aunt of the boy that is being sought by both the forces of light and darkness…a boy about which there’s much more than meets the eye; indeed, he is the very key by which the world could be plunged into the void. As the town unravels around them, the wayward priest, local lawman, and town crazy find themselves the guardians of the special child and his aunt against a darkness as old as creation itself.
I gotta say, this little flick denies it’s DTV nature; it’s a well-written script, balancing the obvious religious connotations with the more openly accessible tenets of faith, regret, and redemption; the only complaint I would have is that it’s a bit by-the-numbers, but not to the point it was a dealbreaker. Dixon’s direction juxtaposes the brightly-lit daytime of the small town with the darkness of the shadowy demon quite aptly; being that shadows are so integral to the story, it’s assured that the scenes in the darkness are carefully done, making us feel the claustrophobia of the dark whilst still allowing us to see what lies within it. There’s no poor use of filters or obvious day-for-night work here, just excellent lighting choices and good cinematography. The acting is better-than-average for this kind of film, with Rooker’s intensity the fulcrum upon which the tale hinges. Young Kevin Zegers does a very good job of playing a believable “good” kid, without mucking it over or playing it too sappy. Although I felt he is a trifle underused (and I suspect some of his performance may have been left on the cutting room floor), it’s great to see genre fave Tony Todd in the role of Covey, his wild actions and mannerisms providing some comic relief alongside a memorable character (and he’s a good guy…well, sorta). The rest of the cast acquit themselves nicely, with some of the “maddened” townsfolk turning in some memorable shock moments. As with the acting, the effects also were better than I anticipated; although CGI was still on the bottom end of the upswing in the late ’90s for low-budget films, here it was used in conjunction with some nice practical work to create images that were in-line with and completely natural within the setting established by the film.
Of course, folks, this is a direct-to-video flick; despite the qualities I’ve mentioned, it’s still not going to compete with a multi-million dollar big-studio release; but we Fellow Fans easily recognize that some of the best of our genre come to us in unorthodox ways. Personally, I really like this flick; it’s got a good story, albeit a pretty linear and somewhat predictable one, but how many horror flicks aren’t, at least to some degree? Despite it’s low-rent status, it still boasts decent acting across the board; and finally, it puts a pretty original spin on the “demonic” subgenre. That’s not bad for DTV…
…plus, Michael Rooker as a two-gunned priest is pretty damned cool, no matter how you slice it. 🙂
Three cents change for a nickel.