Two years ago, writer/director Jon Knautz grabbed the attention of the horror community at large with his loving salute to '80s monster movies, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. Brooks was a popcorn-chomping good time, oozing blood and guts and showcasing a massive array of impressive prosthetic creature creations, including a memorable ending in which Robert Englund turned into a giant, well, somethingrother.
Now Knautz returns to the horror genre with The Shrine, the second feature under his Brookstreet Productions banner with actor/CEO Trevor Matthews. A departure from Brooks, Shrine trades comedy for chills, a slow-building tale Knautz hopes will be reminiscent of some of the more atmospheric '70s horror movies.
After the disappearance of an American backpacker, a young group of journalists travel to Poland to track the story of a small village rumored to practice human sacrifice. They believe the village may be connected to the disappearance. Carmen (Cindy Sampson) leads the group, a determined journalist eager for a big story. She is joined by her reluctant photographer boyfriend, Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) and up-and-coming journalist Sara (Meghan Heffern).
Coming off a successful worldwide premiere at Fantasia in Montreal, where Shrine took home the Audience Award, writer/director Jon Knautz and star Aaron Ashmore spoke exclusively with me about the film, which makes its U.S. premiere tonight at Mann's Chinese in Hollywood as part of the Screamfest Festival.
"This is our first serious film," says Knautz. "[We] don't want to be branded as being the guys that do a specific kind of film. We wanted to try to do some things where it's of a more serious nature." "The Shrine came from the demonic cult stuff from the '70s," explains Knautz. "I really wanted to make a horror film that takes its time to build into the horror. If you think of the pacing of The Exorcist, it builds and builds and then suddenly she's possessed and it carries on from there. We wanted to do something like that, this unraveling of this horror that's slowly rising throughout and gets pretty intense and crazy and sick and twisted at the end."
"I was sent the script and a copy of Jack Brooks," says Ashmore. "They said, 'We're making this film and it's a departure from what we've done.' I took a look at Jack Brooks and thought, 'Wow these guys did a lot and it looks really big. Some of the creature stuff I was really blown away with.' When I read the script for [The Shrine] I could see they were going in a different direction. I really liked the pacing. It's a little slower at the beginning, but once it gets going its got you hooked about halfway through and the rest just flew by."
Much of The Shrine's tension is built around the fact that the audience, like its lead characters, doesn't really know what the heck's going on. Knautz admits this makes it slightly difficult to talk about the project, as revealing too much could spoil the fun for audiences. "They travel to Europe and they're out of their element," says Knautz. "It's like the dude in Wicker Man, he comes to this strange town. The people are very odd and cold. I really wanted the audience to feel that out-of-your-element atmosphere."
Knautz said they've received a bit of criticism for the lack of subtitles for the Polish characters, but that was a very intentional choice. "I did that so that you would feel the movie through the eyes of the American journalists. I think it made it even creepier because you're going, 'I don't know what these guys are saying.'"
Ashmore's character, Marcus, is the group's voice of reason, but as the horrific events unfold, he must step up to the plate. "You see his ability to adapt and kind of take control of a situation," Ashmore tells me. "He has to make some more proactive decisions and maybe kick a little ass."
One of the scenes Ashmore is referring to is a fight with Jack Brooks himself, Trevor Matthews, who makes a big departure from Brooks as a Polish farmer with a pivotal secret. "It was great to shoot and different from what I've done," says Ashmore of the fight. "Jon would talk us through the movements with the stunt guys so we could really choreograph it and feel comfortable."
While Brooks oozed blood (and other substances) at just about every turn, the bloodshed of The Shrine is more subtle. But Knautz says gore hounds should still leave the theater satisfied. "There is gore, but what I would say is it's very violent," says the director. "The blood will be pouring, I can promise you, but [The Shrine] isn't about the over-the-top, fun gore. It's about raw, real, don't-hold-back kind of violence to the horror and the action."
As with Brooks, Knautz and co. did the bulk of the effects work the old fashioned way. "We used total prosthetics all the way," says Knautz. "At one point there's this strange cloud of fog that's just hovering in this forest and there's moments where we used CG to create the fog. But when it comes to the creatures, no way, man. 100 percent prosthetics. We brought Dave Scott back, who did all our stuff on Jack Brooks."
As with the classics Knautz cites as influences, The Shrine builds to a climactic ending sequence he believes will keep audience members glued to the edge of their seats. "I'm quite proud of our climax. Unfortunately I can't give you any details because it would give some stuff away. But I can assure you it is pretty hardcore horror at the end of this film."
"The last ten minutes is definitely my favorite," adds Ashmore. "It's absolutely stellar. It builds and builds and gets crazier and crazier. That was the most difficult to shoot and I was the most surprised at how it turned out. It was so complicated and difficult to do but they did such an amazing job putting it together."
Brookstreet hasn't yet solidified its next project, but Knautz warns it likely won't be horror. "We want to constantly be bouncing around. We love horror and we will continue to make them, but we don't want to just make horror films."
With that being said, Knautz revealed they are in development on a Jack Brooks sequel, although it is not planned as their next film. "We've developed a storyline that's really awesome. I wish I could talk about it because it's just such the perfect sequel. But that's just in the early, early stages of development."
Tickets are still available for tonight's U.S. debut of The Shrine at Screamfest. We'll keep you posted on future opportunities to see the film.
Jeff Otto // FEARNet