Shadow Puppets (DVD)
Written and Directed by Michael Winnick
Distributed by Starz Home Entertainment
In movies, no matter how well intentioned scientists may be, their actions almost always have negative results. Look at Hollow Man for instance. They figure out how to turn a guy invisible, but as a by-product he becomes a homicidal maniac. Now along comes Shadow Puppets, in which a doctor desirous of helping the mentally ill and criminally insane manages to create a new form of monster that lives in the shadows of his research facility and wants to kill everyone in its path.
But let's start at the beginning and not get ahead of ourselves. The background for the opening credits is a very cool collage of brain scans that tips off the viewer as to the "headsy" nature of the film. From there Shadow Puppets opens with a pretty woman waking up screaming in a white padded room. She's wearing nothing but a grey tank top and underwear ensemble. The film's sound design is instantly notable as we hear absolutely nothing but total silence until she begins pounding on the walls and yelling for someone to help her. Then come some horrible, frightening noises and roars until … again, dead silence. The lights flicker on and off, which causes the lock on her door to malfunction. She steps into the hall and, after a short bit of exploring, encounters a man wearing the same type of outfit. Neither can remember anything about themselves -- their names, occupations, the last place they were before waking up, where their clothes might be. Plus it's impossible to tell what sort of structure they are in. Is it a prison? An insane asylum? Or maybe a combination of both? "All right," I'm thinking. "We're off to a very good start."
Couple #1 as we'll call them (Blalock and Marsters) decide to investigate their surroundings further and encounter another man and woman who are both dressed as they are and also have no memories. They split up in order to look for an exit. At this point I began feeling slightly unsure about the acting. Saying it's a bit flat is an understatement, but then I started thinking that it was appropriate given the situation. Who knows how any of us might sound and behave after waking up with amnesia and feeling nothing but shock and fear? So, I decided to give everyone the benefit of the doubt … for a little while at least.
Our original team goes one way, and Couple #2 (Winnick and Baxter) head off in the other direction. They find a swimming pool with a naked girl (Alam) in it, who, of course, also has suffered a memory loss. Winnick's character notices some funny business with her shadow as she gets dressed, but the implication in unclear. Meanwhile, Couple #1 (no one has names at this point, so bear with me) discover a middle-aged man hooked up to a machine that has apparently rendered him brain-dead. Blalock's character seems to have a medical background that comes through despite her memory lapse, raising the idea that our inherent skills and talents (i.e., what we do) are separate and apart from our recollections of ourselves (i.e., who we are). This underlying theme is revisited over the course of the film, giving it some unexpected complexity and depth. They then meet another man and learn that the shadows in this building have somehow taken on a life of their own … with a murderous mind at the helm. The stranger is killed by the shadow beast, and in quick succession Couple #1 rescue Tony Todd's character (not surprisingly, a badass mofo) and try to save another woman, but the shadows get her first.
From here things move along nicely as our team of six survivors learn their true identities and battle against time and whatever it is the well meaning doctor mentioned in the first paragraph unwittingly released. But this is also where their dubious acting abilities become more noticeable … and distracting. For whatever reason, the men fare better than the women. Other than our naked swimmer, who as you might expect turns out to be a slut, albeit an alluring one, "Doc" (as the mofo calls her) comes off as trying to outdo Mother Teresa with her overriding concern for everyone but herself, and the female half of Couple #2 is as wooden as can be. Maybe it's just the way their dialogue was written, but I couldn't really empathize with either of them. Certain scenes involving the two of them were so forced, I was taken right out of the action. Most likely a few more takes and reshoots would have helped, but as Marsters says in his interview, it was a "tough, quick shoot" so Winnick probably had to take what he could get and keep moving forward with filming. And speaking of Marsters, it was great seeing him out of "Spike mode" playing a completely different sort of character. He shows some good range in Shadow Puppets, and having him running around in his skivvies doesn't hurt either! Same with Tony Todd. He's been in so many direct-to-DVD flops lately that it's a nice change of pace to see him in something that showcases his talents. Rounding out the terrific testosterone trio is the director's brother, Marc. He does a lot with a little in his portrayal of someone who was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The monster is surprisingly effective as well. Sure, at times it's a little cheesy with glowing eyes and all that, but I found it a rather endearing effort overall. And the shadowy tentacle effects were downright creepy. It would be interesting to see what Winnick and his FX team could have accomplished with a bigger budget. It almost always comes down to that -- money -- in the final analysis of direct-to-DVD films these days, no? So much potential that just doesn't quite achieve the results the filmmakers are striving for and the audience is hoping for. Maybe with a few more thousand dollars we all would have benefited. But still, Shadow Puppets is a worthwhile entry in the supernatural/psychological thriller subgenre should you have a few hours to spare and want to see something a little different from the norm.
Unfortunately, the extras are completely average. We get a commentary, an eight-minute "comments" featurette (which is, I suppose, a fancy new name for on-set interviews), some trailers -- and that's it. The commentary with director Winnick and cinematographer Jonathan Hale starts out extremely dry and technical. They discuss color schemes and working with family members. Mostly, though, they dissect shooting techniques to the nth degree. We hear about their favorite shots, point of view shots, this shot was this…, that shot was that… If I had done a shot every time one of them uttered the word "shot," I would have been plastered 20 minutes into the film! But by the final half hour or so they find their groove and manage to turn one of the worst commentaries into a fairly entertaining one.
I've seen a few comparisons of Shadow Puppets with the Cube franchise, but to me it plays more like Alien meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Not that it comes close to the quality of those two films, but it is good enough to keep me interested in watching for another project from Michael Winnick. Maybe it'll even be one in which his cast members get to wear actual clothes!
Audio commentary with director Michael Winnick and cinematographer Jonathan Hale
"Shadow Puppets: Director and Cast Comments" featurette
Trailers for feature and other Starz releases
3 out of 5
2 out of 5
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