The Bad Movie Report

Bram Stoker's Shadowbuilder

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It's not every day that an entertainment company writes the Doctor and asks where they might send a screening cassette of an upcoming release. In fact, it's only happened twice, and the first time nothing ever came of it. This time though, the fledgling Sterling Home Entertainment came through, and I was in receipt of the tape and what passes for a press kit these days - basically, the same materials video retailers get, all very slick and professional. I guess I've arrived.

Video BoxIf you're like me, anything with a dead author's name in the title is immediately suspect. I've probably read a bit more Stoker than the average bear (I've played him on stage twice, before there was very much biographical info widely available, and all I had to go on was his writings), and I've never run across a story remotely resembling Shadowbuilder. If anybody knows what it is, please e-mail me at the link below, as the credits merely read, "Based on the short story by Bram Stoker". I thinks it's safe to assume that this flick has as much resemblance to its source material as H.P. Lovecraft's Reanimator, which is not a bad thing. (It could be worse. I recall some flick with Tony Franciosa credited as based on "Night of the Living Dead" by Edgar Allen Poe!)

Iet's get on with it: a rogue sect within the Catholic church summons the titular demon, who is actually the Shadow first cast when God said, "Let there be light." The demon then sets out for a small town called Grand River, where lives a small boy, Chris (Kevin Zegers), who, when baptized, evidenced stigmata (bleeding at the hands and feet), the signs of a "pure soul", a potential saint. The Shadowbuilder is to sacrifice Chris during an upcoming solar eclipse, finishing an invocation which will Undo Creation. Why does the sect want this? Just wacky, I guess.

"I kick ass in the name of the Lord!"The sect's triumph is short-lived, because Father Vassey (Michael Rooker) arrives. Vassey is one of those Soldiers of God you keep hearing about. Soldier as in wearing black leather, packing twin Glocks with laser sights, and not being terribly shy about ventilating murderous satanic priests. Vassey, wanting to wrap up the day's work, similarly heads out for Grand River.

Grand River is having some sort of Eclipse Festival, and I steeled myself for a Jaws-type "I don't care if there is a demon in town! The beaches have to stay open!" sort of thing, but then, I'm a pessimist, and I was glad to be proven wrong. What does happen is that the Shadowbuilder keeps eating people's souls, leaving behind desiccated husks that explode into black dust when exposed to light. With each soul, the Shadowbuilder himself becomes less sensitive to light. And the very presence of the demon in the town is enough to drive people to violence and madness, resulting in a riot of deadly anarchy when the sun goes down.

Vassey is joined by the boy's aunt/guardian (Leslie Hope), the town sheriff (Shawn Alex Thompson) and the town nutcase, Covey (Tony Todd), who, being crazy, knows a lot more about what's going on than most of the cast. After the wily demon manages to cut electricity to the town, the group holes up at the aunt's house with a stolen generator and must fend off some possessed townspeople while the Shadowbuilder himself confronts Chris and promises him that the others will live if Chris will only surrender himself. Being a potential saint, Chris agrees, and the demon makes off with him.

Okay, here is the surest sign that I like a movie: I'm not going to tell you what happens next.

And I really like saying "The end" at the close of my plot synopses.

I am pleased to report that Shadowbuilder is that rarity: a direct-to-video horror movie that I One scared priest.would have liked to have seen in a theater. The film is well-made, well-acted, with nary a false step. Nobody acts stoopid ("My God! A dark house! I'd better search it thoroughly by myself for that shadow demon!") . It's this damn close to being a classic. By this I mean two things: it's almost a very good film, and it shows some admirable restraint; except for the religious tenor of the story, this movie could have almost been made in the fifties or early sixties. And I mean that as a good thing. Director Jamie Dixon is is to be commended (for the most part) for what he doesn't show you. As Stephen King has pointed out, the producer can't afford what you're imagining behind that closed door. Dixon spent his FX budget well and in the right places, and keeps the door closed during others...mostly. More on that later.

What keeps Shadowbuilder from being a full-blown Five Tor Experience? Two major flaws. The first is due to the film's classicism I mentioned earlier - the story is formulaic in the extreme. But you and I wouldn't even be here if formula frightened us. The formula, tired as it is, works, so that's forgivable.

MBooga booga!y only other complaint... and it's a major one... is that as the Shadowbuilder gets stronger, he gains substance - in other words, a face you could pull a close-up on - and that weakened the character for me. He was so potent as a dimly seen (if at all) opponent, any face they attempted to put on him would have been disappointing, especially this spray-painted Kabuki mask. So why even try? I recall having a similar bone to pick with Michael Mann's The Keep. (Now he does morph into a pretty impressive angel-of-death type apparition at the end - but now I've said too much)

Michael Rooker brings his standard intensity to a very interesting character - Rooker alone is Tony Todd.  Irie, mon!practically worth the price of a rental. . Tony Todd's good as usual, but his character, on the surface so rich, seems criminally underdeveloped. Kevin Zegers is a long way from Air Bud territory, but acquits himself well. In fact, the whole cast seems like old horror pros, so slick is this production. I found it interesting that the promotional material wasted no time in mentioning that Todd was in Candyman, Wishmaster and The Crow, but the only genre credit given Rooker was The Dark Half, completely ignoring Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer, arguably the film that first got him noticed. Is that not on your resumé any more, Mike?

When pondering a rental of Shadowbuilder, here's another indicator you might care to use: Mrs. Freex, who normally avoids horror films like rabid hippies avoid streams*, kept drifting back into the room to see how the story was going, finally taking a seat, Baby Freex in lap, to watch the final twenty minutes. The only other movie I've seen so completely suck people in was Evil Dead 2.

Shadowbuilder is set for release Sept. 8. on tape and DVD. Come on, what else is out there? You already own Titanic. If you were going to rent Phantoms by now, you would have. Give Shadowbuilder a rent. Your Significant Other might like it, too.



Okay. Maybe there's hope for direct-to-video.

- September 6, 1998