Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder

Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder (1998)
Studio Home Entertainment (Sterling)
Cast: Michael Rooker
Extras: Commentary Track

Only a few weeks ago a new DVD publisher entered the market by the name of "Sterling Home Entertainment". "Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder" is one of the first DVD releases of this fledgling company and the first thing you will notice when you pick up "Shadowbuilder", is certainly the interesting cover. The disc comes in a hardshell Amaray package that features a lenticular 3D cover, much like Troma’s "Sgt. Kabukiman". Depending on the angle you look at the cover, it changes between three different images. While the packaging might be glitzy, let’s take a look at the film and the disc itself.

A renegade archbishop of the Catholic Church is holding a heretic ceremony in a hidden cellar with a few disciples, summoning a demon in an effort to bring Darkness to the world. Without their knowing the demon materializes, shrouded in shadow and strikes to take a victim before they know it. At the same time a man with two nine millimeter guns break into the room opening fire on everyone inside, killing the Archbishop and his remaining men. The demon however quickly escapes through a window, being nothing but a dark shadow.
Studying the artifacts in the room, Vassey (Michael Rooker) can easily see that he came too late. The demon has been freed and is now on the hunt for the soul of a little boy.
The demon descends on small upstate New York town to find the boy and wreaks havoc on the inhabitants, driving them crazy and turning them into murderers. The satanic shadow is felt everywhere as he tries to get a hold of the boy. In the midst of this unleashed horror Vassey is trying to shelter and protect the boy’s saint-like soul but the "Shadowbuilder" is quickly growing in strength.

The plot of "Shadowbuilder" might not be exceedingly original and the film itself borrows quite freely from other existing genre movies. A number of the sequences, shots and plot devices you will see might strike you familiar from films like "Prince Or Darkness", "The Frighteners", "Omen", "Wishmaster" and many more. Now, borrowing from the best is not always a bad thing and "Shadowbuilder" does so quite well. It creates a creepy atmosphere that relies on the visual quality of the images and the soundtrack for the most part. The film does not contain overly exhibitive computer generated special effects and the ones you can see in the film are unobtrusive and well integrated despite the film’s rather low, less than $4 mio budget. It is nice to see a film that uses classic optical effects and atmospheric production designs in favor of extensive in-your-face computer graphics. It gives the film a very rooted flair, somewhat reminiscent to horror films, like "Phantasm" for example, where the weirdness of the story, the characters and the low-key approach created an unsettling and convincing film. And that is clearly "Shadowbuilder’s" strength. It s not an extremely flashy movie but it tells a solid story creating a number of tense moments and with its good direction, it also creates some very nice, atmospheric scenes. This whole low key approach came as a complete surprise to me, especially since the film marks Jamie Dixon’s directorial debut. Dixon has actually been working in the special effects industry before, on films like "Terminator 2", "True Lies" and "Titanic", and was also responsible for the creation of the morphing effect in Michael Jackson’s "Black Or White" music video. Dixon used his experience in the field to make sure the effects are not too obtrusive and perfectly executed instead of throwing his weight in to create yet another effects-laden film. Especially the dissolving black mist is an effect that is used with great effect, giving the shadows substance and volume.

You might be surprised to find out that Vassey, the film’s protagonist, is actually a priest himself. Father Vassey is played by Michael Rooker, a respected actor who has been able to shine in most of his numerous roles in the past. In "Shadowbuilder" he is once again able to deliver a dedicated performance and the seriousness with which he portrays the gunslinging antithetic priest, clearly helps establish the film’s overall credibility and seriousness. It has certainly been challenging, as it is outright awkward to see a priest aiming two nine millimeter guns at people and firing them without hesitation. Through an incident in his past, Father Vassey lost his faith and was forced by circumstance to pick up his weapons. The event changed his life and mindset completely. It twisted his calling, and ever since he has become the church’s hitman, the executor in the real world. Rooker completely controls the character and makes him believable despite the huge contrast. He is supported by a strong cast of genre veterans, including Tony "Candyman" Todd in the role as a "crackpot" hermit who understands that light is the only salvation to drive out the shadows.

Sterling Home Entertainment has released "Shadowbuilder" on a single sided disc, containing the film in a <$PS,fullscreen> presentation. The film has never been shown in theaters and as such is, what is called, a direct-to-video release, which explains the fact that there is no <$PS,letterboxed> version. Sterling have created a high quality disc with this film, because the image is sharp and very well defined. There are hardly any compression artifacts to be seen, despite some dot crawl in extremely dark scenes, and color reproduction is extremely vivid and natural without <$chroma,chroma noise>. The film transfer contains solid and very deep blacks while maintaining good shadow details, even in most of the dimly lit and nighttime scenes of the film.

Eckart Seeber has been composing an engrossing soundtrack for this film, greatly enhancing the film’s impact, skillfully placing cues at critical points. The film utilizes Orff-ish choir arrangements and thus generates a tension packed atmosphere, just like Jerry Goldsmith’s fabulous award winning score for "The Omen" did back in 1976. Choir arrangements of this style take a lot of practice and skill on the composer’s and arranger’s end, and the performers alike, and I was curiously surprised by the quality of this one. Because religion is directly embedded in the movie’s storyline, these choir themes work great and give the score a big and ominous, almost foreboding character. The soundtrack is presented in a clear and dynamic stereo <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix. I have noticed a few distortions however, and strangely they did not occur in overly loud passages. Still they only last for split seconds, are extremely limited, and do not really distract from the film. "Shadowbuilder" comes dubbed in English only and contains Spanish subtitles.

The disc also contains a very informative <$commentary,commentary track> with director Jamie Dixon and although he has his pauses, many of his comments are very insightful.

"Shadowbuilder" was fun to watch and highly entertaining. It clearly reminded me of more traditional horror films, where characters and cinematic atmosphere is used to great effect, than the modern day computer generated special effects orgies. It is rather restrained in its display of blood and gore, too, making it a movie of choice for people who do not measure the quality of a horror film by the gallons of blood shed on screen.