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Shadowbuilder
(a.k.a. Bram Stoker's Shadowbuilder)
(1997)
 

Director: Jamie Dixon            
Cast:
Michael Rooker, Leslie Hope, Shawn Alex Thompson


It's strange that this Canadian production has moments of sunshine, compared to 99% of Canadian movies that are shot in overcast skies. It's even stranger knowing this movie centers around a demon who travels in and is protected by shadows and darkness! Though since the movie is set in America, I guess these facts don't become important anymore. No matter. Shadowbuilder, Canadian made or not, Canadian located or not, is a very good horror movie that succeeds by avoiding many horror clichés created in the last two decades or so.

It also avoids the trend of piling on the blood and guts other horror movies pile on. There is such material in this movie, but the focus is on surprises and shocks. A woman being pounced on by a killer and stabbed to death graphically on screen has been done so many times, it's no longer scary or interesting. However, a scene where a woman is quickly pulled into the blackness, and then after a heartbeat of a pause, you hear a crunch - that's unexpected and chilling. It's apparent the director feels that a viewer's imagination will always imagine something more terrifying than any filmmaker could show on film.

Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) plays Jacob Vassey, a priest with a different method of rooting out evil: two 9 mm cannons, which he uses at the beginning of the movie to wipe out several devil worshipers conducting a ceremony in a warehouse in his city. Vassey discovers that he's too late, and that the worshipers have already conjured up the title demon, who looks like a cloud of smoke. The demon then escapes into the sewer system, and travels far into the countryside to the small, bland town of Grand River.

Finding the identity papers of a corpse in the warehouse, Vassey soon deducts that the demon is going after the son of the dead man, who lives in Grand River. Arriving at Grand River,, he locates the boy, and after hearing about his history, discovers that the boy has some holy blessing from God, and is destined for greatness. This conclusion come from the fact that after birth, the boy's hands and feet bled during his baptism. Also that fact that the boy's name is Chris (get it?)  may have something to do with it. But even before Vassey arrives at Grand River, the demon has been terrorizing the town, by killing various residents to build up his strength and power. When the demon has enough power, he plans to sacrifice Chris during the upcoming solar eclipse. With the help of only the town sheriff and Chris' aunt, Vassey must somehow keep Chris away from the demon and the town's rioting residents (who have gone insane from the demon's presence).

Now, I've never heard of this supposed Bram Stoker story before. If it does exist, I'm sure that the filmmakers took extreme liberties with the story. No matter. Shadowbuilder, while set in modern times, stays with the old tradition of achieving horror with suspense and scares. There are scenes in this movie that will make you jump, with the sudden shocks not becoming cheap gimmicks for scares, but as part of the continuing story. Also, director Dixon builds up tension, where we are made to wait for something horrifying. At one point in the movie, the crazed, blood-soaked mob gathers outside the house where the protagonists are hiding, and.....stand there, waiting. What will they do? When will they do it? What should the protagonists do? Scenes like this are a lot of fun, because you have no idea what will happen next.

The Shadowbuilder demon is, thankfully, not a screaming maniac or a Freddy Krueger-like wisecracker. Instead, he is quite...passive in his tone of voice and action. He doesn't seem to care much about any attempts made to stop him or slow him - he just feels these things are minor inconveniences in his way to his definite victory. A quite different villain than usual, and his confidence is what makes him scarier than the usual villain. The cast generally performs adequately, though Rooker, sounding like he needs to clear his throat, doesn't seem to quite fit in, though he is never becomes actively bad or annoying.

The only significant flaw of the movie is that the low cost of the movie occasionally comes to the surface. During the riot, we hear people screaming, fighting, and things being blown up or broken. But when it comes to actually showing the riot, we only see two or three people running around at the time, and maybe a small fire here or there. And the computer effects, though much better than in a TV show like Sinbad, are not quite feature film level. Though the filmmakers didn't have the money to make the effects look better, they at least did have the imagination to think of some original ideas or direction for the effects. The night bug attack works, even if the bugs don't look extremely realistic. And the scene with the old man and the telephone pole uses effects to create a moment so (intentionally) hilarious sick, that I will not tell you anything more, except - rent the movie!

I also liked the little details the filmmakers placed in the movie. For example, when the townspeople go insane during the night, we see a quick shot of a pentagram made with children's toys. Obviously, some of these little things were placed to compensate for the limited budget. But I really think the filmmakers were having a lot of fun making this movie, and therefore gave it an extra effort to make it special. The result is that viewers will have as much fun watching this movie as the filmmakers did making it.

Also reviewed at: Cold Fusion Video


UPDATE: Cámara Hagen Ricardo Raúl wrote in with this:

"Apparently, the story by Stoker they're referring to was published in the short-story collection Under the Sunset (London: Sampson Low 1882). I haven't read it myself, but since you mentioned not knowing the story's origin, I thought you'd like to know."

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Also: Confessions Of A Serial Killer, Clownhouse, The Untold Story

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