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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
In a padded cell, a woman
!!!HORROR MOVIE CLICHÉ!!!
Sits Bolt Upright Out of a Sound Sleep Screaming!
Ouch! Not the best way to open your movie - with a worn out trope.
We have no idea who she is and neither does she. She has a wedding scar around one finger so we know that she is married.
Nothing is really happening here but the mood is made creepy by the good use of camera shots and sound effects. The woman, actress Jolene Blalock, reacts to the sounds in a less than convincing manner. Still we're only a few minutes in, I'm a Horror Thriller fan, and I'm forgiving - okay, very forgiving - especially to newbie writers and directors and Writer and Director Michael Winnick (DEUCES), is such a newbie despite his brief stint in Norway in a television movie.
After the horrible sounds (good noise by foley artist, Billy Morton: THE WISHER, TRY TO REMEMBER [TV], THE CRADLE WILL FALL [TV], I DREAM OF MURDER [TV], ANDROID APOCALYPSE) and a power black out, the electricity returns and the woman sees her door open a little. Her door was part of an auto-lock system and all of the cell doors open, releasing their occupants. But even though the cell doors are open, the prisoners are still trapped.
Thus begins SHADOW PUPPETS, taking the old CUBE premise of a group of disparate people who have no idea why they are imprisoned. There are many variations of this story and some are utilized quite well. SAW is another that comes to mind. The "People in a Prison who don't know who they are or how they got there" is not new. One of my earliest memories is of an old Twilight Zone episode, "Five Characters In Search Of An Exit". If this plot device is earlier than that, I'm unaware of it. There have been plenty of movies and television episodes that use this meme since.
And it is a meme, not a rip-off, so I don't call Winnick to task for it. There are many more movies that could use this plot device in the future, it's that good a concept.
So I'm watching SHADOW PUPPETS, familiar with the plot line and where it could go, where it should go, and the tantalizing possibilities that I haven't thought of but always thirst for - I want the unexpected of course - I want to be surprised.
None of these people know who they are and, as they separate (thankfully for a good reason) and make their way through their prison, they realize that they are actually trapped in a hospital. Jolene Blalock's character is with a guy (James Marsters: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER [TV], THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL , ANGEL [TV]) and the movie unwinds like a video game cross between a first person shooter and adventure.
We eventually discover clues to the mystery of what's going on in the hospital and meet some creepy people like Dave (Richard Whiten: JACK FROST, THE ISLAND), who turns out to be more terrified than monstrous. But monstrous things soon happen that put this movie in a whole new direction which held my attention at just the right moment. Actor Whiten really nailed his part too. The guy totally delivered his very brief role. While he was on the scene, the movie crackled.
Meanwhile the other two people, another guy (Director Michael Winnick's brother, Mark Winnick: DEUCES) and another gal (Diahnna Nicole Baxter), are going their own way. The guy is scared but tries to be brave even though he's a bit nerdish. The gal is totally terrified of doing anything or going anywhere. But as much as she doesn't want to move, she doesn't want to be alone either. So she follows the guy she's stuck with, pissing about it all the way. The two meet another woman (Natasha Alam) who seems to handle it all quite well, which is more than a little chilling. On the other hand, when the young guy first sees her, she is swimming naked, which is always a plus. But other, shadowy things happen too.
The first couple and the new threesome soon come together and get hit with another
!!!HORROR MOVIE CLICHÉ!!!
Okay, that's two Horror movie clichés back-to-back so now I have to stop and say a few things about them.
There are all kinds of Horror movie clichés in existence. Some are dated (the fat guy or gal or handicapped person gets it - always) and some still exist and some of those are quite repugnant. SHADOW PUPPETS also retains the most repugnant of Horror Movie cliches and we'll get to that later.
When James Cameron made the sequel to one of the most popular SF/Horror movies of all time, ALIEN, he also addressed the one glaring stupid cliché in that movie, that of the freaking "Gotcha" of a cat jumping out and hissing for a cheap scare. In the scene where Jonesy, the cat, hisses, its for a very good reason. But before Ripley began her new adventure in ALIENS, she held Jonesy, looked that furball aquare in the eyes and said, "And you, you little shit-head... you're staying here." That was Cameron's way of killing the gag: telling the audience that he wasn't going for the hackneyed. That was his way of telling the audience that they were in for one hell of a wild ride.
In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg did the same thing with the "Hand on the shoulder" gag in JURASSIC PARK. That was his way of killing the gag.
Wes Craven went for broke and buried a whole slew of worn-out tropes (or thought he was) by calling attention to every shitty, hacked, and worthless cliché of Horror movies by having Jamie Kennedy's character lay out each and every one of them in SCREAM.
SHADOW PUPPETS doesn't begin as a bad movie, but it turns into one by relying way too heavily on the burden of clichés. And something that's telling about this is, it doesn't even rely on the clichés by building up the tension first before it delivers the gag. Winnick just throws it in there, anywhere.
SHADOW PUPPETS feels like Winnick is not really interested in Horror Thriller movies. It's his step on the ladder to making other movies. SHADOW PUPPETS moves more like an action thriller than a Horror Thriller. Tension is created with an action payoff (chase scenes, shooting, fighting) instead of a scare or shocker payoff.
There are two other things wrong with this movie. One is the varmint: it's just not scary. It does deadly things, but so does the murderous thug in a crime drama. So does the hit man in a spy movie. The monster, a smoky shadowy cgi spook, is just a drab effect. Sometimes we see through its point of view a la WOLFEN, PREDATOR, or PITCH BLACK. But the pov isn't terribly exciting either and certainly not scary. Far better would have been to not show it all off, but to tantalize us with our own imaginations by revealing parts of it. Think about how scary FINAL DESTINATION was and they never showed any of the monster at all!
One more cliché that I'll mention (there are plenty) is the
!!!UNFAIR RACIAL CLICHÉ ALERT!!!
Tony Todd (CANDYMAN, THE CROW, FINAL DESTINATION, VALERIE ON THE STAIRS) has a role in SHADOW PUPPETS, providing much needed tension and threat, which keeps the movie aloft during moments when it would surely sag. Also worth mentioning is the great set design and props by Kristen Ridgway and Mike Manasewitsch (CEMETERY GATES). While some of the props were too close to the camera - so revealing that some of the "metal" was just wood painted silver, mostly the set/production design really delivered on the lost claustrophobic effect, as well as the overall creepy mood.
For all of its problems, SHADOW PUPPETS is not a bad movie as it is entertaining even if it isn't inspiring, and for that it gets a "just earned" three Shriek Girls. It will be released direct to DVD on July 24.