Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shadowland – review

dvdDirector: Wyatt Weed

Release date: 2009

Contains spoilers

One potential difference between independent movies and big studio movies lies within the trailers. With a bigger movie you watch a trailer with a degree of cynicism, wondering if all the best bits have been condensed into that brief minute and a half. When a trailer for an independent looks good I think you have a little more hope for the rest of the movie.

Having seen Shadowland’s trailer I was filled with hope. It was an indie – quite obviously – but it looked good, well filmed with interesting shots and it had... something… I had hopes for the film and, I have to say, there is clearly something (good) going on in indie vampire film land because there are strong movies appearing and this is one of them.

stakedThe film starts in 1897 with a staking as a bound girl, Laura (Caitlin McIntosh), is staked through the chest by a bible thumping pastor (Dale D Moore) and it is a rather effective scene. Cut to 4 months ago and a young Goth lad (Sean Contini) meets a man in an alley. We discover later he is known as Lazarus (Carlos Leon) and he has been seeking to buy an artefact – something that the lad’s family has had in their possession since 1897. It is a tooth set into a chain. Lazarus takes the tooth and, as the lad picks the money thrown onto the alley floor, we see a swoop and there is only a stain of blood left. A man, later revealed to be Julian (Jason Contini), appears with a gun and exclaims that he has been beaten to him.

finding a crossIn the present day a church is being renovated and a workman uncovers a cross that has been buried. He also notes something sticking from the ground. He pulls it and it is (to us clearly) a stake, constructed of wood with iron bands. He calls his foreman over who is less than impressed, the finds are likely to cause a delay in the work they are doing. He suggests that he’ll call the church and they’ll send someone over.

Laura awakensAs night falls the rains come and the ground becomes a sodden, muddy mess. Out of the hole comes a girl, Laura. She is covered in mud and clearly injured at mouth and (we see later) throat. It is a marvellous from the grave moment and full kudos to Caitlin McIntosh for putting herself through the obvious ordeal of the mud, wet and cold. She seems terrified of a car that passes close, hiding in the bushes and using a sharp stone to break the bonds still at her feet.

in the dinerShe passes a diner and enters it. No one is around and she sees a tray of meat which she wolfs down hungrily and then puts on a coat that is behind the counter. She sees a calendar and stares for a moment at the 2008 date and then spots a knife and remembers having her throat cut. The cook (David Martyn Conley) comes out of the back and sees her, scaring himself. However she looks so pathetic that he takes pity on her. He gets her to reach into his coat pocket and retrieve his wallet, she can keep the coat, and asks her name. She clearly can’t remember. He realises that her throat is messed up and gets her to write (a biro befuddles her but she uses a pencil), she asks for Main Street. He realises she means the old town’s Main Street and directs her towards the riverfront – giving her a tray of meat and some other food as she leaves. She steals some boots.

She meets a homeless man (Jay Kelley) who trades a sandwich for water and a pickle for a blanket – with which she makes a skirt. He wants her to stay – they can keep each other company he suggests – but she moves on. As the sun arises – the sunlight seeming to irritate her eyes but little else – she reaches a cemetery. She finds a crypt belonging to the Wolff family and sleeps on its step.

a mystic deviceAs she sleeps there seems to be memories of the past and these seem to be shared by Julian who awakens. His body has several scars and he recalls confronting Lazarus in order that he might kill the vampire and take the tooth. The fight was not exactly easily won and he ended up with a knife in his shoulder. His memories tell us that he had visions as a child – visions that have restarted and concern Laura – and that he works for the church. In this world the church regulates those areas of life that people would call supernatural, protecting the public from the dark as it were. He uses a device to perform a reading and when called, about the find at the church, he admits that her reading is neutral and… that is about as far, in depth, as I want to go.

Jason Contini as JulianWe are in a world where the church hunt vampires, where the bishop (Don McLendon) wants Julian, the hunter, to try and save them before dealing with them and where they can read good, evil or neutral with their device. I would have liked a little more explanation around the device but there was just enough given that film was not lacking without it and perhaps giving too much background to the setting would have slowed the pacing too much. Julian has a whole lot of equipment but I was rather taken with the plant he took to the vacated burial to see if it wilted and blackened when near her grave (it did).

funky fangsIt seems, at first, that sunlight and holy items are not an issue for these vampires but we later discover that it depends on their alignment. If they move towards evil (and a feed is enough) then sunlight will burn and a cross will sear the flesh. They heal rather quickly – by her second day out of the earth Laura’s throat has healed – and have some rather funky double fangs going on. They can also develop rather large wings.

blood in a vampire's visionIt seems that a single bite can turn – rather quickly – but whether the victim has to be partially drained only is not explained (though perhaps hinted at). The vampires can move with speed and, as Laura ends up fighting the law enforcement, it was nice to see a vampire who didn’t suddenly rely on new found kung fu fighting skills – though her speed and strength gave her a rather unassailable advantage. A tazer will take a vampire down and blood burns red in their vision.

scenes from the pastThe film itself has a rather simple story but works for several reasons. With respect to the story it has a hint of a deeper philosophical discussion of good and evil – though that is only explored between the lines really. However it is the pacing that makes it work so well. Weed interlaces scenes between the past and the present in such a way that he reveals the narrative masterfully and keeps the viewers interest piqued and opens up Laura's story wonderfully. It was also nice to see scenes from the past that looked as though they were in the past – they really did transport the viewer back (though, as a matter of taste, I wasn’t personally sure about Lazarus’ jacket!)

Caitlin McIntosh as lauraThe primary thing that made the film was the performance by Caitlin McIntosh. She had very little in the way of dialogue and portrayed her fear and confusion through non-verbal communication that worked really well. She really did carry the film through. Perhaps I wasn’t as sure about her 19th century persona but only because her reborn performance was so well done. The other main performance is by Jason Contini as Julian. I have to say that, at first, I was unsure as to whether I was convinced by him as the hunter (who may or may not be on her side) but the character revelation at the end of the film made me realise that he had been playing the character as he should have been and any doubts were in my own preconceptions. That said, whilst we got a large amount of characterisation around Laura, I felt that we missed out on some around Julian and we could have done with more. The supporting actors all worked well and I rather enjoyed Dale D Moore as the somewhat lecherous 19th century pastor.

Lazarus with wingsThe final reason this worked was because it looked good. There was a good use of film, the lighting was properly done. It was clear that any budget they had was used to make the film work. It was nice, after endless camcorder calamities, to see an indie film that looked like a film (again this seems to be a mark of some of the newer, better indie vampire flicks). One thing they did do was use models rather than rely on CGI – after all, CGI is unlikely to work without a big budget (Hell, even then it can fail). Thus the scene of Lazarus with wings was done using models and this offered a solid quality that CGI would never have given. Not everything worked that well, a SWAT thrown through a window looked a little false – but it was a minor issue in a very good use of effects.

Laura bittenI really enjoyed this. When it came to the score I really had to think. To be honest I loved the direction they took the ending but I felt that perhaps the story could have been a little more in depth – especially on the philosophical good vs evil side. That said, the way the whole film was cut together and paced worked so well I ended up settling on 7 out of 10. Well worth catching. The imdb page is here and the homepage, with trailer, is here.


Zahir Blue said...

This is one of the movies I'm reviewing for the Vampire Film Festival. So I haven't read your review. Will after I see it, though.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cool - let me know and we'll compare and contrast and see if great minds think alike!