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22 June 2012

THE SHADOW OF DEATH (Gav Chuckie Steel, 2012)

When she runs out of weed, Nancy (Sophia Disgrace) calls her aging skater-wannabe ex-boyfriend Dan (Dan Carter-Hope, THE WAKE) to replenish her supply. Dan calls his supplier Marley (Charlie Bore) to score some drugs in hopes of scoring with Nancy. Since Marley is currently kicking it in the Devil’s Jump forest, a stretch of terrain that is supposed to be little used but seems fairly busy today. Dan needs a ride to get there, so Nancy leans on dependable roommate Deb (Corinna Jane) to give them a ride. Deb in turn drags along nerdy third roommate Jamie (Jane West). As soon as they arrive, they are greeted with a bloodcurdling scream; nevertheless, they press on in search of the ganja. Dan quickly gets them lost and they take shelter from a sudden rainstorm in a shack (with décor by the Blair Witch presumably). They tell ghost stories, the most prescient being about a killer priest Father Malone (Stewart Dakers) who dons a hooded cloak (and a pair of tights over his face) to butcher those he believes are sinners. Hmm, could he be the assailant that is slashing his way through the forest’s visitors? When Dan goes outside to relieve himself and does not come back, the girls’ only hope may be “Super Special Cop” Craven (Dan Bone), a local nutter who likes to don his killed-in-the-line-of-duty father’s police gear to hunt druggies and devil worshippers.
Opening with a folksy Pentangle-ish title track over idyllic shots of the woods, THE SHADOW OF DEATH isn’t really that original of a slasher film, nor even as a slasher parody. The film name-checks DELIVERENCE and SCREAM, and features a HALLOWEEN poster in the background of one shot (the ghostly little girl may be an obscure reference to ghost children of THE FOREST), but the film also brings to mind James Bryan’s endearingly inept slasher DON’T GO IN THE WOODS with its introduction of random hikers, cyclists, bird-watchers, and the like in order to quickly and gorily kill them off (albeit with a smaller body count). The stalk and kill sequences are conventionally shot and lacking in suspense, but it’s the “meat” of these scenes that viewers care about and the film. In addition to the usual machete-to-the-head shots, stabbings, and decapitations, there are some novel kills including a death by bong, a bit involving binoculars and a tree branch, an eye-plucking, a typically messy evisceration by hunting knife, and a particularly wince-inducing impalement on a splintered sapling. The reversal during the finale is predictable but effective nonetheless – sort of calling to mind the obscure slasher THE REDEEMER – and could just have easily worked in a more serious slasher.
The three female leads are likable. Disgrace’s acerbic Nancy softens up later in the film, and it is becomes harder to peg any one of the three (stoner, enabler, nerd) as “the final girl.” Lip-ringed Jane is sympathetic as the enabler of the dysfunctional trio, and the focus of a self-contained black and white horror sequence in the form of a nightmare she relates during the “ghost story” session (one almost wonders if it was scripted as such or excerpted from an earlier work by the director, or at least a test-run for him). Carter-Hope and Bone play it broad, but not so much as to be off-putting (considering the disparate elements of this “everything but the kitchen sink” conglomeration). The end credits feature a special thanks to Slyvia Soska whose DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (available on DVD in the UK through Bounty Films) – co-written and directed with her sister Jen – made a film festival splash recently.
The HD videography – captured on the Panasonic HDC-SD60 1080i camcorder – sports creative framing, but the colors make for a queasy viewing experience (possibly intentional). Highlights are often blown-out, and the super saturation of the forest greens and color gels as well as the sometimes murky contrasts suggest this has less to do with the original shooting and more with the application of preset color filters (the screener disc’s artifact-y quality may not represent the final product). A film-look type filter has also been added, so there are often artificial scratches and emulsion digs running through the frame. The effect adds little when viewed on the small screen, but it might add to the atmosphere – although I doubt it will ever look convincing – on festival screens with some added softness from the enlargement of digital projection. Although the end credits specify the make and model of camera, the audio recording device (the nifty-looking Zoom H4n 4-track digital recorder), the scoring and mixing software, it only states that it was edited on an iMac (I’m assuming he used Final Cut Express or Final Cut Pro rather than iMovie since he sprung for Pro Tools for the sound editing). The stereo mix on the screener disc has clear dialogue (usually an issue with low budget films), typically exaggerated sound effects during the stalk-and-slash scenes, and the music is well-mixed (the main title song in particular comes through atmospherically).
These days, pretty much anyone with access to even a consumer HD camera can round up some friends and run around the woods (and they do) and offer the result up for distribution. As far as the script is concerned, THE SHADOW OF DEATH may be thrown together (certain character bits seem like they could have been better explored and integrated); but the shooting seems to have been very well thought-out, suggesting that the director’s future work will be worth checking out should he get more ambitious with the scripting and usage of available locations and other resources. THE SHADOW OF DEATH has not yet secured distribution in the UK or stateside.

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