Directed by Matthew Arnold
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
Matthew Arnold’s thriller Shadow People, which screened at the 2012 Marché du Film alongside Cannes and was subsequently picked up by Anchor Bay, is a fictional explanation for a series of mysterious deaths that occurred in a small town in Kentucky in 2008 thought to be due to Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome. One evening disc jockey Charlie Crowe, played by Dallas Roberts, receives a phone call from a listener purporting to see shadow people, who later mysteriously dies in the hospital. As Crowe discusses the subject on his radio show, others begin to turn up dead, leading the disc jockey to explore the phenomenon, specifically its prevalence in young Cambodians in the 1980s and its relationship to a medical experiment performed by a crazed doctor in 1971.
Shadow People plays out like a detective story; yet, its real-life inspirations undercut the narrative, appearing in random spots or in a De Palma-like split screen to give the film a faux-doc approach that plays out like a poorly constructed made-for-TV re-enactment. The film draws heavy inspiration from Pontypool, The Ring, and even Session 9, yet lacks the palpable tension these films have bubbling throughout, due in no small part to its dual nature. Arnolds’ attempts at giving real events a supernatural bent could have worked with a simple “Based on true events” note at the beginning of the film and without the interference of poorly placed and supposedly real documentary footage. There is no need to have the characters’ real-life counterparts providing context for their actions as they stumble to and from each convenient discovery to support the overwrought narrative. It comes off as bad writing, with Arnold incapable of constructing a narrative that explains things in an effective and organic manner, instead falling back on footage to serve as exposition and provide some context for what happened after the events of the film.
The shadow people are less an antagonist than they are a convenient way to toss in a poorly utilized scare, hampered by shoddy cinematography and a poorly paced script that favors Crowe’s investigation into the phenomenon rather than eliciting genuine frights. While their existence as an explanation for SUNDS is all well and good, the reason for their existence is given little credence beyond a Dr. House-esque scene at the end of the film that seeks to reconcile Crowe’s role with spreading their existence over the airwaves. It’s a cheap and tenuous plot point that appears far too late in the film to be a satisfying excuse for the mess of a film that preceded it.
The performances are wooden and the dialogue contrived, none more so than Alison Eastwood’s, whose role as Dr. Sophie Lacombe of the CDC feels plucked right out of a bad soap opera. Roberts is admirable, though his eventual obsession with the shadow people lacks an emotional punch that truly makes it believable; it’s incredibly passive, though much of the blame should be lobbied on the poorly written character rather than Roberts himself.
Arnold’s approach in Shadow People is novel and ambitious, but poor pacing, weak dialogue, and the inability to properly reconcile the narrative with the supposedly true events make for a giant mess of a film. It’s a shame, really, as the concept of shadow people and, to a lesser extent, sleep paralysis, is ideal subject matter for the genre, and one that deserves to be explored in a more suitable fashion.
1 1/2 out of 5
1 out of 5