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Review "From Within"


September 17, 2008

By Jay Seaver

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I tend to like a certain amount of logic and explanation in my fantasy stories; that's just the way my mind works. Horror sometimes works best when the only certainty is that of the grave.

We start with Natalie (Rumer Willis) and Sean (Shiloh Fernandez), a couple high school kids making out - until Sean kills himself. Natalie runs back to town, but almost as soon as she's alone, she's trying to do herself in. And then the person that found Natalie...

This is all going down in a very religious community, and while preacher's son Dylan (Kellly Blatz) is leading the charge against Sean's brother Aidan (Thomas Dekker) - the evangelical community had even accused their mother of witchcraft before her death - Natalie's friend Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice) is trying to get them to lay off, though not getting a whole lot of support from her guardian Trish (Laura Allen) and her boyfriend Roy (Adam Goldberg) - though Pastor Joe (Steven Culp) is, oddly enough, rather more muted.

The opening act of this movie is some pretty excellent horror in the Kiyoshi Kurosawa manner: A world gone mad, with sudden violent death always around the corner and paranoia mounting. It's a classic technique - present the audience with a pattern but no explanation, and the filmmakers generally opt to just show the audience the aftermath - the aftermath of a suicide is nearly as bloody as the event itself, and the uncertainty of how it could happen is all the more unsettling. It's almost a shame that Lindsay must eventually get a handle on what's going on.

She does, though, and once that happens, there are rules. That's not often a bad thing, but this movie has conflicting faiths as a fairly prominent theme. While Brad Keene's script does manage to get some decent jabs in at how members of all religions will talk one game but play another, it also sets up a situation where you have to accept one religion as being more "real" than the other for the purposes of the story, which undercuts that theme somewhat. It's a tricky balance, and sometimes a storyteller has to trade some of the purity of his message for plot advancement, but this might be too much.

In terms of getting the story told clearly, director Phedon Papamichael does well. Most of his previous work has been as a cinematographer, and that manifests itself not so much as flashy visuals, but as an eye on clarity. The audience never feels lost, and Papamichael manages the trick of keeping the audience on edge throughout, even when the unnerving supernatural events have an explanation and a lot of the tension has transferred to a more conventional situation of people acting out of panic and prejudice. I do have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in the look of the film, which was flatter and blander than I might have expected from a guy who works as a director of photography; maybe the film prints used by the After Dark HorrorFest will look better than the digital projection used at the festival.

The mostly-young cast handles things pretty well. Elizabeth Rice is a likable lead as the good-girl main character, while Thomas Dekker does fine as the rightly angry but still smitten boy she pairs up with (with Margo Harshman, playing Aidan's cousin Sadie, injecting just the right bits of nastiness to keep their scenes together from getting too syrupy). Kelly Blatz and Steven Culp are an interesting pair, too, with Blatz the frightening true believer and Culp harboring doubts, which seems like the opposite of usual. Laura Allen and Adam Goldberg are also good, making the members of this evangelical community not look like brainwashed cultists, which would have been an easy direction to take; it's also a more blue-collar role than usual for Goldberg.

In fact, despite what feels like a pretty big thematic flaw in retrospect, this is a pretty decent horror movie. I do have to dock it a bit for maybe having one swerve too many toward the end, although to be fair, many horror buffs like that sort of thing.

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