Saturday, 26 January 2013

Bram Stoker's Shadowbuilder

Director: Jamie Dixon
Writer: Michael Stokes
Producer: Andy Emilio
Cast: Shawn Alex Thompson, Michael Rooker, Tony Todd
Country: USA/Canada
Year of release: 1998
Reviewed from: UK DVD

I read a review of Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder somewhere in which the writer said he would have enjoyed seeing it on the big screen. Ah, well possibly one of the reasons why this little direct-to-video gem counts among my favourite films is that I did indeed see it in a cinema.

There used to be something called ‘the London screenings’ - perhaps there still is, I’m a little out of that scene by now. What happened was this. The three main film markets in the world are the AFM in Los Angeles, Mifed in Milan and Cannes in, well, Cannes. Film-makers and distributors come together at these events to buy and sell movies like pieces of meat. New films, films so new they haven’t even been made yet (“Is there a script?” “No, but there’s a poster!”), old films and films so old that someone has repackaged them like a new film hoping nobody will notice. Terrestrial TV rights for Germany, DVD rights for Brazil, pay-per-view rights for Singapore, it’s an extraordinary thing to see people buying and selling this stuff like a car boot sale with the actual content of the films themselves almost irrelevant.

Now, a lot of American buyers and sellers, flying over to Europe for Mifed, would stop off in London for a couple of days beforehand, allowing themselves to (a) get over the jetlag and (b) meet with a few British contacts in their offices while they were over this side of ‘the Pond’. Then some of them started hiring cinemas and actually showing each other their films during this UK stop-over. I’ve been to the AFM and Cannes but not to Mifed, but by all accounts it was always a bit chaotic (in the 1990s, at any rate) and so people found it easier to watch some of the films in advance in London, leaving the hectic days in Milan for actually haggling over deals. Over the course of a few years, these big-screen private trade previews became semi-formalised into ‘the London screenings’. They were all listed in Screen International and if you were a savvy journalist - which I was (and like to think I still am) - you could go down to That London for a few days and see a whole bunch of new films for free, as well as sometimes bumping into old friends.

Basically, the West End cinemas would show these pictures during the morning and early afternoon when they would otherwise be closed and all you had to do was (a) know where to go, (b) know when to turn up and (c) pop your business card into a box on the way in.

So that’s where, in 1997, I first saw Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder. And I thought it was great. I later picked up a VHS copy (with a terrific lenticular cover) and also acquired (from God knows where) a huge poster with the same design. It’s the largest lenticular image I’ve ever seen and something I’ve never found a home for although I would never part with it. Later I picked up the DVD (with the same image but non-lenticular), of which more later.

Shadowbuilder stars Henry the serial killer himself, Michael Rooker, as Father Jacob Vassey, a gun-toting priest who never cracks a smile and has the funniest line ever to consist only of the words ‘off’ and ‘fuck’. He interrupts a Satanic ritual in which some, well, Satanists I suppose, are raising some sort of demonic entity using a photograph, hair and blood (on a sticking plaster) from a young boy. Although Father Vassey manages to plug all the bad guys, the shadowy demon escapes and disappears into the sewers. Vassey somehow follows clues which lead him to the little town of Grand River where Sheriff Sam Logan (Shawn Alex Thompson, Corny Collins in the original Hairspray, now looking alarmingly like Steve Irwin) is having a not-terribly well-concealed relationship with town vet Jenny Hatcher (Leslie Hope, who was Jack Bauer’s wife in 24), single mother of the teenage boy in the photograph, Chris (Kevin Zegers: Komodo, The Hollow, Dawn of the Dead remake, but probably forever associated with the first four - of seven! - Air Bud movies).

In the tradition of these things, Grand River is about to have a festival (see also King Cobra etc), in this case to celebrate a total eclipse which is on the way. The festival doesn’t really have a great deal of relevance - in fact I think it’s barely mentioned again - and the eclipse for the most part simply provides a ‘ticking clock’ (see also Throne of Fire etc). One place where the eclipse does affect the plot is in the character of Evert Covey, a one-eyed, dreadlocked, cigar-chomping loon who lives in a caravan outside of town. Feared by the local kids but really just a harmless kook (and played with great gusto by the Candyman himself, Tony Todd), Covey has a portable generator and has amassed a huge collection of electric lights of all sorts, some of them stolen from people’s gardens. He is apparently determined to keep his home bright during the eclipse.

Well, the demon arrives in Grand River and starts killing people, reducing them to dry husks which collapse to dust in sunlight or any other bright light, starting with the local deputy and then working his way through the doctor who examines the deputy’s body and Jenny’s colleague at the veterinary surgery. Ultimately he’s after Chris who, it turns out, exhibited stigmata when he was baptised, showing that he was born pure, without sin.

The Shadowbuilder (who is never referred to as such) must kill a set number of people, based on Chris’ age, before sacrificing Chris himself in the local church during the eclipse. The precise whys and wherefores are all a bit hazy, truth be told. At the same time, the demon is exercising some sort of power on the people of Grand River, making them go crazy and kill each other. This leads to the two most memorable images of the film (not including Father Vassey’s two-gun attack on the Satanists in the prologue). At one point we pass a playground where we see a group of little girls all pulling the heads off their dolls. No mention is made of this and none of the characters notice it, which makes it all the more chillingly effective. Equally unnoticed by anyone on screen, hence equally unnerving, is a later shot of the same playground, now deserted, with all the parts of the dolls carefully arranged into a pentagram.

While the scenes of the townsfolk going crazy provide a scary background to the main story and justify the main characters’ inability to escape or call for help, they also let the side down somewhat through the budgetary limitations which result in rather minimal damage actually being caused and possibly the smallest, least threatening insane angry mob ever committed to film. Basically it’s a few youths going crazy and one hot chick stripping on the war memorial. But what are you going to do? This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film, nor does the contradiction that the rioters (all six or seven of them) are destroying anything that might provide light but have also started several fires.

Anyway, Sam, Jenny and Chris end up trapped in Jenny’s house, along with Father Vassey and Covey, who has obligingly agreed to bring over his generator and lights. They must keep the house illuminated and also deal with occasional possessed townsfolk smashing through the window. It’s a standard sci-fi/horror siege but it’s tense and well-handled. Nevertheless, a guard is let slip and Chris is kidnapped by the demon.

Sam and Jenny set off into the sewers while Vassey and Covey travel by overground route to the large town church where the demon is reciting the entire Book of Genesis backwards (“Light be there let said God and.”) because this will somehow throw the universe into reverse or unleash all the other demons or ... I don’t know. Something bad is going to happen if he sacrifices Chris in a church, at the moment of eclipse, just as he reaches: “Earth the and Heaven the created God beginning the in.” It really doesn’t matter what. It is sort of explained but it’s rather complex and confusing and ultimately, you know, demons sacrificing stigmatic children in churches during total eclipses is just generally not the sort of thing you want in your town.

Especially when there’s a festival on.

There is one curious gap in the story, with Sam disappearing in the sewers with a scream then reappearing later - without explanation and at a serendipitous moment - in the church as Vassey faces off against the demon. Sam makes some comment to Covey but it’s really not clear what happened to him or how he escaped from whatever it was. Looks like a scene that wasn’t filmed if you ask me.

Shadowbuilder was a straight-to-video flick and so the budget wasn’t massive and one must make allowances for that. Where the film punches well above its weight is in the use of CGI effects because it is the only feature (so far) directed by Jamie Dixon, President of effects house Hammerhead Productions. It’s easy to forget, given how rapidly effects technology advances, quite how impressive the various FX shots in Shadowbuilder are. There’s the demon himself, played in some shots by Andrew Jackson (Specimen, Universal Soldier II) in pitch-black prosthetics but often represented by a cloud of black stuff from which the imposing figure agglomerates when required, before dissipating when he wants to move on. (Voice-over king Steven Jay Blum provides the character’s gravelly tones.)

The desiccated corpses collapsing into piles of dust are another CGI trick which, back in 1997/98, just was not seen in this level of film-making. Shadowbuilder is contemporaneous with (and probably not dissimilar in budget to) the likes of Space Marines and Last Lives, to pick two examples from this site, but in terms of visual effects is streets ahead. Stuff like this was evident in the biggest blockbusters - this was five years after Jurassic Park - and crude CGI creatures were turning up on TV in shows like Ed Naha’s Sinbad but to see this sort of effect, used this well, in a little DTV B-movie was almost unheard of. What is more the effects stand up well today. People can do better effects cheaper now - but they usually don’t, they just do cheaper effects cheaper.

I don’t know what it is about Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder that appeals to me so much. I’m sure there is partly the nostalgia for that exclusive first look on the big screen, the same sort of fondness I have for Ed Wood oddity I Woke Up Early the Day I Died or comedy thriller Perpetrators of the Crime. But there’s also a great sense of fun to the film, capturing the spirit of DTV B-movies from the golden age of the mid-1980s yet combining that joie-de-video with the slick, polished technology-in-service-of-art that was possible in the late 1990s.

Also among the cast are Hardee Lineham (who was in Mike Hurst’s thriller New Blood), Catherine Bruhier (fresh from co-starring in Due South), Gordon Michael Woolvett (Bride of Chucky), Richard McMillan (Universal Soldier II and III, New Blood, The Day After Tomorrow, Cube Zero), Paul Soles (the voice of Spider-Man in the late 1960s cartoon series), Billie Mae Richards (the voice of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the classic Rankin-Bass animation and its sequels) and David Calderisi as Father Vassey’s boss, Bishop Gallo.

In a neat touch, this is exactly the same role that Calderisi played the previous year in Tibo Takacs’ thriller Sanctuary which was, like Shadowbuilder, written by Michael Stokes. Stokes’ other feature credits included stravisnuts such as Iron Eagle IV and No Contest II before he apparently switched into writing TV animation, notching up episode of ToddWorld, Rolie Polie Olie and Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends. That’s quite a range.

Bram Stoker himself gets a ‘based on a story by’ credit and indeed he did write something called ‘The Shadow Builder’ (two words) which was included in his 1881 collection Under the Sunset. Hardly the best-known of Stoker’s works, you can find it online but it’s pretty heavy going, even for a short story, being basically one, long, dreary metaphor. Pretty much its only connection with this film is a central conflict between ‘the Shadowbuilder’ and a mother.

Young Abraham Stoker has had a possessory credit on a few films over the years, starting with the Jess Franco-directed, Christopher Lee-starring Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula in 1970, although in English that’s more commonly known as Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (hey, it wouldn’t be a Franco movie if it didn’t have at least six or seven different titles). Then there was quite a gap until Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992, Coppola’s companion piece to Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and this was followed by three less obvious titles, the Roger Corman-produced Bram Stoker’s Burial of the Rats, Jeffrey Obrow’s Lou Gossett-starrer Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy and this one. Actually it’s four if you count Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy 2, the UK retitling of David DeCoteau’s Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy which by default holds the record for ‘least connection with anything ever written by Stoker.’ More recently, there was Van Helsing rip-off Bram Stoker’s Way of the Vampire in 2005 and The Asylum brought us Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Curse in 2006.

Back in the Shadowbuilder credits, cinematographer David Pelletier was yet another veteran of New Blood and also lit Jill the Ripper, Deep Evil and The Tooth Fairy. Production designer/associate producer Ian Hall pulled similar double duty on both Sanctuary and New Blood - two Andy Emilio-produced titles which recur frequently among the cast and crew CVs - and also worked on Johnny Mnemonic. Composer Eckart Seeber scored a Jackie Chan film and a Jet Li film, which is pretty cool.

Thad Beier oversaw the visual effects for Hammerhead while Jamie Dixon was busy with camera and actors; his other credits include Deep Blue Sea, The Ring Two and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Paul Jones (Wishmaster, Ginger Snaps, Hellraiser III) designed the prosthetics and Mark Rice (Urban Legend, Blues Brothers 2000) was the special effects co-ordinator.

The only downside to Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder is that in the UK it was released on DVD by Film 2000, the cheapest and shoddiest label imaginable, which managed to copy the US sleeve - including the extras list - without bothering to copy all the extras. So we do get potted text biographies of the director and lead actors but Dixon’s commentary, promised on the sleeve, is nowhere to be heard. The fools at Film 2000 also managed to print the title the wrong way on the sleeve spine, requiring one to file this DVD on one’s shelf upside-down in order to make it readable when browsing.

In short, Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder (or Bram Stoker: Dark World as it was called in Germany) is a cracking good B-movie with plenty of excitement, an exciting and fast-moving plot, top-notch effects, a decent cast and an original and threatening villain. On the shelf, it may look pretty anonymous but this stands out above the crowd and is well worth picking up if you get the chance.

MJS rating: A

Review originally posted 11th January 2008

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