Written by: Matthew Arnold and Travis Brooks
Directed by: Matthew Arnold
Starring: Dallas Roberts, Alison Eastwood, and Anne Dudek
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Now you will see them too.
Plenty of horror movies rely on the sensationalist insistence that they’re “based on a true story,” but Shadow People goes a step further than that, as it’s “based on a true phenomenon”: Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome. First documented among Thai immigrants in 1977, the affliction refers to the sudden death of young, healthy people in their sleep. The syndrome has often captured media attention, especially when it occurs in rashes; one such occurrence among Cambodian refugees in the late 70s actually inspired Wes Craven to write A Nightmare on Elm Street. Like that film, Shadow People offers a supernatural explanation for those who perish in their sleep; however, instead of blaming it on one boogeyman, it conjures up a legion of ancient, shadowy beings.
The film is actually based on a 2008 SUNDS outbreak in Kentucky, where late night radio host Charlie Crowe (Dallas Roberts) unwittingly finds himself at its center when a disturbed caller purports to be haunted by entities known as “The Shadow People.” After the boy mysteriously dies in his sleep, Crowe is intrigued and begins to research the phenomenon and discuss it on his show, a decision that leads to huge ratings to his shows. It comes at a price, however, as even more people begin to die in a similar manner. Before long, the case attracts the attention of a CDC investigator (Alison Eastwood), who is out to determine the physiological and psychological explanations behind it.
Shadow People is insistent on its real-life basis, so much so that it presents archive footage of the actual participants. However, the film also trying to sell a supernatural angle (which Crowe apparently began to really believe in), so it’s a little at odds with itself. Its main conceit is the divide between the supernatural explanation and the notion that these people are dying due to their intense belief in the Shadow People (sort of a malicious Placebo effect). Rather than toy with and tip-toe around that divide, Shadow People obviously believes more in the former; in fact, one of its two prologues visits Cambodia in 1979, where a young boy overhears some Shadow People lore, and he’s visited by them later that night. It sort of renders any other explanation moot, and Eastwood basically plays the same role as the parents on Elm Street who refuse to believe in nocturnal boogeymen.
The other main throughline is also a bit deflated, as we’re always a step ahead of Crowe during his own investigation. There’s some genuine intrigue when he uncovers some early 70s research at a local college, at which point the film makes fine use of its semi-found footage concept with some eerie recordings. Screenwriters Matthew Arnold and Travis Brooks also manufacture some clichéd drama with Crowe’s recent divorce and an awkward relationship with his son. This provides some moderately compelling drama since he’s inspired to shed his label as a fuck-up by exploiting this story to finally hit the big time, but Shadow People is too scatter-brained to find a sustained focus in it. The familial drama only pops up a couple of times, but it does at least lead to an unexpectedly cerebral climax that forces Crowe to choose fame over infamy.
Even that is undone by the obligatory “it’s not really over” coda, which actually ends up tying into the film’s other prologue, which features a bunch of people discussing a mysterious Youtube video. Can you tell that Shadow People is sort of all over the place? Perhaps due to its faux-documentary approach, it never finds the proper amount of concentration or momentum and leaves you with a grab bag of familiar horror tropes and themes. Shadow People recalls stuff like The Ring and Pontypool, only they’re enfolded in that generic, early-millennial PG-13 horror aesthetic (it feels especially like They or Darkness Falls), complete with nondescript cinematography, serviceable acting, and obvious, thudding scares. The Shadow People themselves certainly aren’t as iconic as Craven’s boogeyman, as they’re just a formless, vague entity whose greatest power (outside of inducing instant death) is spooking Crowe into being afraid of his own shadow (literally!).
Numerous films fail to live up to an intriguing premise, but Shadow People shows no lack of ambition while doing so. While most of its flourishes (particularly the blending of the actual footage with the movie itself) result in its formless, aimless structure, at least it’s aspiring to be more than just another generic found footage or supernatural horror movie. Instead, it ends up being a little bit of both; somehow, that doesn’t really make it worse—simply a bit more interesting and more frustrating since this frightening premise deserves better. Anchor Bay recently released Shadow People on DVD and Blu-ray, and the standard-def offering is solid if not unremarkable—the transfer is crisp but not all that vibrant (mostly due to the film’s drab cinematography), but the 5.1 track is boomy and engrossing. The lone special feature, “Shadow People: More to the Story” is a 12 minute featurette that further discusses some of the true phenomena behind the film. If nothing else, Shadow People does exploit the same primal fears that Craven exploited thirty years ago--everyone sleeps, and a force that feeds off of thoughts and fears is terrifying due to its omnipotence. It's a shame that the film rarely taps into that sense of urgency and despair, though; instead, Shadow People gets so caught up in its mythology that it forgets its nightmarish underpinnings. Rent it!
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