Shadow People
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Shadow People

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There are many movies that boldly make the claim of being ‘based on true events’. Unless the story centers around a well-documented historical event that statement needs to be taken with a grain of salt about the size of a basketball. Even if a real event is the basis such claims are easily challenged. I would not accept the 2001 flick, ‘Pearl Harbor’ in lieu of any university text book account. In the case of the movie under consideration here, ‘Shadow People’ also known under the title ‘The Door’ not only makes the statement with a title card within the first few frames of the movie. It sites something unusual that occurred in Cambodia and sites a viral video known as ‘Sleep Study GR16 1971’. If you check this reference out on You Tube you will see the video mention listed as being done in Camden uploaded about a year ago; the same time as the initial release of the movie. One thing to note is the hit count. In the film it is depicted soaring into the hundreds of thousands of hits. The actual count when I looked a few minutes ago was 2,150. I don’t think that quite meets the accepted criteria for a viral video, perhaps a slight cold. It is not uncommon now for a studio to pepper the internet with sites and videos relating to their film or television series. The ABC cult classic, ‘Lost’ made heavy use of this tactic resulting in highly entertaining results. Here, although the video is obviously a plant intended to tie in to the movie’s promotion the ploy works largely because the movie was intriguingly crafted and able to provide a suitable sense of mystery and enjoyment to be interesting.

The film starts out by directly addressing the trepidation surrounding any ‘true fact’ found on the web. A series of young men and women, are shown, video chat style either accepting the veracity of the clip or dismissing it as a hoax. In all the voices there is a touch of hesitation, the slightest hint of discomfort. Supposedly the clip is about a research project that was investigating a series of deaths that occurred in Cambodia in the early seventies. Villagers mysteriously died in their sleep. The video was created in Camden College by a Dr. Ravenscroft a researcher involved in the study of dream hallucinations. This phenomenon came to the attention of Charlie Crowe (Dallas Roberts) one night while on the job. Charlie is the host of a fairly popular night shift radio show. He has one of those programs people listen to in the loneliness of the night time with listeners calling in to chat. The night in question Charlie takes a routine call from Jeff Pyatt (Jonathan Baron). Jeff begins to talk about the ‘Shadow People’ that are entwined with a sleep experiment in a nearby college. Charlie’s inherently attracts a certain demographic that includes a significant number of mentally unstable individuals. Certain that Jeff is part of that group Charlie cuts him off. The next night Jeff calls in again more adamant that ever to get his message out. Before he can fully react Charlie is shocked by the loud sound of a gunshot. Afraid that h just hosted an on air suicide Charlie tracks down Jeff to discover he was still alive. Apparently the disturbed young man was shooting at something in the room, a shadow person. Charlie is hooked, obsessed to get to the bottom of the mystery.

This drive is intensified when Charlie receives a strange package from Jeff. The note on it simply reads "Read and believe". Inside the package are materials pertaining to Dr. Ravenscroft and his research at Camden. When Jeff unexpectedly dies in his sleep Charlie is consumed by the bizarre circumstances Charlie decides to track down the scientist. First stop is the college library where not being eligible to access the needed materials is overcome quickly when the student librarian tells Charlie she is a fan of his show. As Charlie digs into the scientist and his research someone else is on a parallel path, Sophie Lacombe (Alison Eastwood), an investigator for the Center for Disease Control, the CDC. She is looking into a series of unexplained deaths attributed to sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome (SUNDS). This is roughly defined by people that inexplicably die in their sleep, apparently devoid of any known pathological etiology. The deeper Charlie gets in his exploration the more he becomes aware of shadowy firms barely perceptible out of the corner of his eye, lurking in the dark recesses of a room.

According to his bio filmmaker Matthew Arnold studied the hard sciences, particularly physics before shifting his concentration to the cinematic arts. This has afforded him an eye for constructing a plausible scaffold of scientific study to this film. Considering this is his freshman feature film the achievement is even more impressive. I found several elements of his style refreshingly novel in its presentation. First let’s consider the obvious pitfall Mr. Arnold expertly avoids. This story is quite conducive to the found footage style that has heavily proliferated since the 1999 release of the horror flick, ‘The Blair Witch Project’. This movie gave a jump start to the myriad of movies presented as footage from some doomed filmmakers later found and reexamined. What was frighteningly new in 1999 has become mundane and frequently misused. Arnold eschewed this format in favor of the much more effective hybridization he employed here. The core of the story is related in a strong, traditional narrative. This is the place the filmmaker deploys the abilities of his actors not in the commonly used reenactment style but as a traditional movie. Interspersed throughout the film are video clips depicting comments of several experts and persons with firsthand experience of what occurred surrounding the radio station. An example would be comments made by Crowe’s actual engineer recalling Jeff calling in and the sound of the gun going off.

The mixture of styles goes a long way to elevating the movie from the banal pack into an exceptionally intriguing film. The element of an ongoing conspiracy is critical to further the plot of the story. Once again this is a trope so overdone as to lose a significant amount of its potential. Arnold has turned a couple of overdone plot devices twisting then in such a way as to create a film that is different than most of the current horror genre’s offerings. While a sizable number of number of burgeoning horror masters resort to the relatively cheap and easy visceral shock Arnold has chosen the course representing a dedicated auteur’s pathway, the psychological thriller. Arnold builds the suspense carefully, simmering the characters in a broth of circumstances that becomes increasing complex and compelling. By instilling the clips into the film at pivotal moments to heighten the element of plausibility sufficiently to afford the audience the crucial suspension of disbelief; the resulting film is entreating and a stylistically interesting approach to horror. Considering the current infatuation with torture in horror movies this is a welcomed change of pace.

Posted 03/15/2013

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