One might expect the follow-up from the writer/director of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer to come out with "more of the same" for his sophomore effort. Brooks did pretty well for itself on the festival circuit a few years back, so Jon Knautz might have been forgiven if he'd turned out a sequel for his second feature. But nope! The Shrine is true-blue horror all the way, and if it struggles a bit in Act I (and leaves an unsavory taste in your mouth overall; more on that in a minute), the flick benefits from a progressively creepy tone, a few strong performances, and a halfway-decent reason for getting three young idiots stuck in the woods with some lunatics.
The reason is this: Carmen (Cindy Sampson) is a hungry young reporter who has caught wind of a potential scoop: a rash of potentially connected disappearances have occurred near an isolated Polish village. With her (clueless) boyfriend (Aaron Ashmore) and her (dippy) assistant (Meghan Heffern) in tow, Carmen -- with no permission at all from her editor -- dashes off to the deep forests of Poland, only to discover three things: A) there's an eerie mist in the woods behind the village, B) there's a horrifying statue in the center of the eerire mist in the woods behind the village, and C) the villagers are vehemently unfriendly.
The flick stumbles out of the gate: Carmen comes off as an aggressively unpleasant (and rather unintelligent) character, and for all her alleged skill behind the keyboard, she's also pretty whiney and petulant. Dippy assistant Sara is on-hand mainly to be a sounding board for the Act I plot exposition, but she's really cute, too. So that counts for something. As the boyfriend, Aaron Ashmore brings a welcome sense of logic and ominous worry, but even his material starts to sound a bit like redundant whining after a while. Once those rough spots smooth out and the trio hits the village, The Shrine becomes a basic but certainly compelling enough little horror story.
And yes, supernatural things are involved. That creepy-ass statue has something to do with it, but I specify that only to indicate that The Shrine is not (entirely) a human vs. human horror tale. At its darkest moments, The Shrine is uncompromising and even aggressively nasty, but there is a method to the madness on display: the third act delivers some plot contortions you may not see coming. So even with its relatively familiar trappings and some occasional bumps in the road, The Shrine is an darkly enjoyable little throwback when all is said and done.
And as far as the slightly nasty taste that the film left in my mouth ... well, let's just say the flick seems particularly unkind to women. The "arc" of the two leading ladies is decidedly nasty, while the men ... well, you'll just have to see the movie. (Let's just say it sort of reminded me of Mad Men.)