Sunday, May 23, 2010
#85: Shadow Builder (Jamie Dixon, 1998)
I had low expectations for visual effects man Jamie Dixon's straight-to-video directorial debut, Shadow Builder, and these low expectations were largely met. For one thing, look at that title. Yes, the title comes directly from the obscure Bram Stoker story that loosely inspired the film, but Shadow Builder? It sounds like something New Age idiots buy. I would like one dream catcher and one shadow builder, please. Shadow builder, build me a shadow! Then there's that whole straight-to-video thing, and that first-time director thing, and that director-is-normally-a-special-effects-guy thing. Sometimes, these things ain't no thing, but this time, these things were definitely a thing.
Here are the problems. The movie is visually generic and presented in a flat, anonymous style with no real sense of place. Filmed in the Toronto suburbs, it could be taking place in any random town or suburb in Canada or the United States. The script is ridiculous, simultaneously overwrought and underwritten, with loads of unintentional hilarity. The actors in the leading roles do a good job of naturally selling the ridiculous material, but many of the supporting roles are wildly overplayed. And the one thing I thought would be solid, the special effects, blows clams. Dixon was one of the pioneers of CGI, which still looks bad but is slowly getting better. Late-1990s CGI, however, can't be helped. It looks like outdated video game graphics and never for a second appears like it was filmed in the same place as the rest of the movie. There is no suspension of disbelief with CGI, especially from this early era. Even the packaging for this movie fails. The DVD cover with that goofy-looking demon on the front? That demon is not actually in this movie. The menu screen shows an image of a young boy who is also not in this movie, though a young boy is one of the main characters. I'd love to see this trend continue. Well, Tom Cruise is in this movie, but any movie star will do. Let's put Harrison Ford on the DVD cover instead.
Shadow Builder opens with renegade priest Michael Rooker (Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) sneaking into the ceremony of a Satanic cult. This cult is summoning a demon called a shadow builder, who will unleash hell on earth by sacrificing one of God's chosen people during the upcoming solar eclipse. This comes directly from your Bible, people. I think it's in the middle somewhere. Remember all those shadow builder sermons you had to sit through in your youth? This cult is doing the ceremony up right. They've killed a man and a woman, drained some of their blood, and smeared the blood on a Bible, which they read from while standing in a pentagram. They've paid the drunken, deadbeat father of a young boy who experienced stigmata during his baptism and is pure at heart and all that shit to present a sample of the boy's hair and blood and a likeness. He comes through, they burn the stuff in a spooky, Satanic candle, and the shadow builder is summoned. This ceremony contains my favorite unintentionally hilarious line in the movie, from the cult leader: "You understand, 'hell no' will soon be a contradiction in terms. Hell will no longer be denied." Rooker busts in on the ceremony a little too late since the shadow builder has already appeared and left to do his work, but he does get to whip out a couple of guns and blow away all the cult members.
The film then shifts to the small town of Grand River, where the chosen boy lives with his veterinarian aunt, who dates the town sheriff. His mother is dead, and his dad's the aforementioned deadbeat. The shadow builder, who resembles Darth Vader and the Predator except his face is a constantly swirling CGI shadow, has hit town. He turns to dust in the light, but in the dark he can swirl around town and gather souls. He gets stronger with each soul, and he needs six of them to take the boy. Besides his direct soul stealing, his mere presence in the town is enough to create havoc. Grand River soon devolves into a succession of fistfights, axe murders, and spontaneous topless dancing. Soon, the boy, the sheriff, his aunt, the renegade priest, and the town eccentric (a sorry collection of affectations and tics sadly played by the Candyman himself, Tony Todd) are the only ones capable of saving humanity from the shadow builder.
Dixon, whose only other directing credit is a TV movie sequel to another TV movie called Bats: Human Harvest (apparently the story of killer bats attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan), is still enjoying a long career as a visual effects person. His credits include Robocop 3, True Lies, Showgirls, Titanic, Deep Blue Sea, X-Men, Undercover Brother, and Tropic Thunder. Oh yeah, and Flubber. Never forget Flubber. Shadow Builder is no great shakes, not particularly scary, and not that memorable, but I did have fun watching it. You might, too, with enough beer, nachos, friends, and snarky comments to last two hours.
Bonus dialogue: "What is a priest doing with two nine-millimeter cannons?"