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“A plague a' both your houses!”
A UK region 2 DVD review of FROM WITHIN by L.K. Weston
 

This review contains some plot spoilers. You have been warned.

 

"You know how it is here. It's God and the Devil,
good and evil. There's no in between."
Lindsay

 

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life. Well, actually, there's a little more to this story than the tragedy than befell Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. To be more accurate, the death of those two young lovers, Shaun (Shiloh Fernandez) and Natalie (Rumer Willis) isn't where Phedon Papamichael's From Within ends; their deaths are just the beginning. After witnessing her boyfriend shoot himself, a distraught Natalie disrupts the serenity of Grovetown, its white picket fences and manicured lawns with one almighty scream, and that's before we've made it to the title sequence.

Soon after, we rejoin a bloodied Natalie, now running at full tilt, back to town to her father Bernard's (Jared Harris) store, where he pries the news of Sean's death from his terrified daughter in front of store customers Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice) and her mother Trish (Laura Allen). Left alone while her father closes up, Natalie stabs herself in the neck with a pair of scissors. The fiercely religious, conservative population of Grovetown and its law enforcement close ranks and Pastor Joe (Stephen Culp), does his best to reassure the flock that the deaths are part of a tragic suicide pact.

But, the Grim Reaper has other ideas. When more deaths occur, all made to look like suicides, the finger of blame falls upon non-believer Aidan (Thomas Dekker), brother of Sean, which sees him persecuted by the pastor's son, Lindsay's boyfriend, Dylan (Kelly Blatz), who believes him cursed, having inherited his late mother's gift for witchcraft. When those around her fall victim, Lindsay begins to think there's something more sinister behind the mysterious deaths. Drawn to Aidan, she turns to him for help in finding the cause. As the residents rally, closing in on Aidan and his cousin Sadie (Margo Harshman), with vigilante levels of enthusiasm, Lindsay finds she's next on the death list.

From its opening moments, From Within it proves in no uncertain terms that bigger doesn't always mean better. Shown primarily on the festival circuit before this UK release – premiering theatrically at Tribeca in 2008, making subsequent appearances on line-ups at Montreal's Fantasia festival and London's Fright Fest before making its US DVD debut as part of the third wave of After Dark/Horror Fest's 'Eight Films to Die For.' Of course, festival appearances and award nods can raise the profile of any film from nothing to something overnight – one need only look towards mainstream crossovers like Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways as proof of its box-office pull – but they also have to stand up on their own two feet or more appropriately, the unfurling feet of film reel fed into a projector, and then later, unfurling with the revolutions of your DVD player. Most films try, most films fail in such endeavours, but some do stand up to that all-important scrutiny. From Within is of the latter variety – most definitely a little film that can.

If you're thinking that it sounds like a derivative mish-mash blended up in Genre Buster 3000 mixer, well it is. For the well-trained and eagle-eyed amongst you, the film offers a bonus layer of entertainment called 'spot the shot.' OK, I jest in part, since the thought 'hey that looks like the part in...' is a thought that often crosses the mind of a seasoned film viewer and film reviewer alike. But, all is not what it seems. Although an American film, it has a distinctly global feel, borrowing from the phenomenally successful Japanese j-horror market for the look of its ghostly apportions (clearly influenced by screenwriter Brad Keene's earlier work on The Grudge 3, itself a sequel to a US remake of Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on/The Grudge), before flipping over the cultural egg-timer to centuries past to weave in elements of witchcraft, curses and rituals. Elsewhere, there are a few other nods to latter day US franchises such as still-expanding Final Destination, alongside a few amusing self-referential moments, to roll out the classic 'make 'em laugh before you scare em,' tactic employed by classic horror slashers.

Usually, employing such a large number of already frequently used tropes in one film would either make the result on seem lazy, tired, fragmentary or a combination of the three. The many writers and directors that play that kind of game often end up on a losing streak with a box-office bomb behind them. To merely watch this on a surface level means you miss out on an awful lot of what From Within has to offer its audience. The way in these tropes are relocated and re-employed are what makes it interesting. I've always considered filmmaking to be something like alchemy, with various elements being placed together to form a new whole, and that's exactly what happens here. Having read that Papamichael wanted to make a film in the tradition of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, I was somewhat perplexed when I watched several characters being dispatched with production line efficiency, and we weren't yet near the thirty minute mark. I thought that either something had been lost in translation or that the director had simply missed the mark. To my relief, the pace of the film slows considerably and the main protagonists begin to step away from the crowd to be expanded upon.

Given its varied influences, Papmichael's film is a surprisingly cohesive one. From Within marks the his director's chair after a fifteen year absence, during which time he worked as the director of photography on a diverse range of films, including Brad Silberling's Moonlight Mile, the aforementioned Sideways, James Mangold's Walk the Line and Oliver Stone's W to name a few. Having helmed rather unremarkable horrors Sketch Artist and The Dark Side of Genius in the early 1990s, the interveneing years have certainly allowed Papamichael to hone his skills, which come through on screen through the film's high production values; which make the most of its Maryland location with its lush greenery, steely blue lakes and its perfectly charming cookie-cutter town. The run down mansion inhabited by Aidan and latterly Sadie carries all the indicators of an eerie, classic horror house such as those in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Stuart Rosenberg's The Amtyville Horror, but also references the past, days of old money.

So often, modern horror suffers from the very fact of its newness, when that age and backstory are weaved in by writers, it can feel contrived. Keene's references to Aidan and Shaun's past are just that, references, but further attention to detail in the production design means that the film continues to feel making the film rooted, honest and ordinary. Perhaps most importantly of all, it makes it realistic. The anchor in this film comes in the further attention given to characterisation and strength of its casting, which set it apart from its peers.

Granted, Grovetown could stand for any town in the Bible Belt, with the majority the townspeople aren't really fleshed out – which is a fitting reflection of their mob mentality toward Aidan – and it could be argued that Pastor Joe and his son are easy targets to vilify, equally as easy as targeting people like Aidan in the first place. Joe is written as the stereotypical loud and proud evangelist preacher who intones to his congregation with the aid of a headset microphone and a snappy suit; his effigy projected large on a video wall behind him. He wouldn't look out of place on religious network television.

Likewise, his son Dylan, while he initially appears to show sympathy for both Sean and Natalie, berating his father for downplaying the magnitude of their deaths, but after when he confronts Aidan at school later on, accusing him of being behind the murders, it rather taints our early view of his appeal to his father. It's never really clear if his concern is directed at Natalie, Sean or both. It's to Blatz's credit that he gets across Dylan believes his actions to be justified at all times, even if he is using the shield of his beliefs to behave in a way that is immoral. Such ambiguity in character is rather appropriate given that this is a film which explores the relationship between religious beliefs and morality.

Although all the principal characters in the film are interesting in different ways, each presenting a different set of challenges to the viewer, the character of Aidan is essentially the film's heart, and Thomas Dekker turns in an equally strong yet subtle performance as something of an anti-hero, the unassuming counterfoil to Blatz's loud mouthed, quick-fisted church boy, perfect for Elizabeth Rice's sweet, good, girl next door Lindsay. I initially thought her character somewhat lacking in backbone to be a true modern horror heroine, and at times, Rice's performance is undermined by that of Margo Harshman's memorable turn as Aidan's acerbic-tongued cousin Sadie, but Rice comes into her own opposite Dekker, and they act as a sweetly romantic yin and yang, much like the relationship of Natalie and Shaun in the opening of the film.

While Aidan and Lindsay's connection may provide relief from the darker elements of the film, its ending is an incredibly bleak one. For a film which also concerns itself with the polarising forces of dark and light, daybreak for these characters doesn't bring about redemption, and indeed, a vast majority of the film is conducted in the dark, whether lit by the moon, candles or the swirling lights of police cars, giving the film an eerie edge, that cuts deep come the credit roll. Part of me wants to take my hat off to Keene, and commend him for bucking the trend of creating a happy, utopian ending. The other, more cynical part of me just thinks that his decision to leave the door somewhat ajar in terms of narrative closure is a rather naïve one, that means, somewhere, out there in the Hills of Hollywood, some other screenwriter is typing away on a sequel/prequel/glossy astronomically budgeted reboot (delete as applicable).

By its very nature, genre is cyclical, but I fear it's growing ever more difficult for studios to realise when the brakes need to be applied. Just because a franchise can be spawned from a decent base like this, doesn't mean it should. Such attitudes will see to it that over time, this cleverly-conceived, atmospheric tale turned into heartless, dilute tosh that makes it laughable instead of laudable, Freddy vs. Jason anyone? I really hope that this film doesn't suffer the same fate. As it turns out, Keene is that very writer, with an untitled sequel currently in the works, I hope that, through Keene's continued involvement any subsequent follow-ups can retain the integrity and depth I found here.

Horror which provides its audience with food for thought as well as the chill of a good scare doesn't happen all that often nowadays. The 'thinking man's' horror film pioneered by George A. Romero and David Cronenberg are in all too short a supply; bypassed in favour of the blood, guts, and overzealous violence of 'torture porn' films, helmed by likes of Eli Roth. While such films have their place, and do have their fans – the tribal, cultish nature of horror itself means that there's room for just about everything – it's nice to know that for those less inclined to that aesthetic and mindset, there are filmmakers and writers out the working to create alternatives for the inquiring mind. From Within certainly doesn't shy away from death or depictions of gore, but everything here feels necessary and in keeping with the general tone of the film rather than gleefully exploiting the novelty of repulsion through the medium of special effects just because you can.

So often, independents such as From Within can be left on the shelf wanting for distribution or only attain a release in their country of origin, forcing fans to import DVDs in order to see the films they want. E1 Entertainment should be commended for continuing to support independent films whilst simultaneously distributing bigger mainstream releases. Such an attitude allows films like this the chance of an audience it might not have ordinarily reached through the home entertainment market. Once upon a time, the words 'straight-to-video' or more appropriately, 'straight-to-DVD,' evoked snorts of amusement and derision, branding the film with connotations of lesser quality versus that of their theatrically released counterparts, but, as From Within illustrates, it's not always the case, and sometimes, the DVD section can yield unexpected surprises like this.

sound and vision

A fine 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks as good in the dark of night as the bright of day, with a good contrast range ensuring that detail is not lost to the always solid black levels. As you'd expect from a transfer of a modern American film, the print is spotless. An independent production it may be, but visually the transfer can hold its own against many of the big studio releases.

For the soundtrack, there's Dolby srereo 2.0 and surround 5.1 tracks to choose from, but there's not much in it. Both have the sort of clarity and range you'd expect from a modern film, though the 5.1 is slightly more expansive and makes use of the surrounds for the music.

extra features

Theatrical Trailer (1:53)
This is a nicely edited piece, and sets up the major themes of the film well. Sprinkled with well-placed jump cuts are combined with the ubiquitous gravelly-voiced narrator to jolt the nerves. Its slow burn approach to pacing works much better than the flash-bang speed freak, style over substance angle that's common to modern horror film marketing. This isn't the kind of trailer which inadvertently gives away all the plot points in addition to giving you a heart attack and dose of tinnitus into the bargain. A quieter affair it may be, but it certainly racks up the tension while it piques your interest.

UK Promo (0:40)
This is more like a TV spot than a trailer, albeit a very short one. Some choice quotes from various sources add some additional heft, as well as the all-important seal of approval, especially important for smaller productions such as this. An interesting little inclusion this one, purely to consider the intricacies of editorial policy when marketing films to other countries.

While there's nothing specifically 'UK' about this compared to the original trailer, the choice of clips does give a broader picture of the film, which obviously broadens it's appeal beyond the teen horror market. Interestingly enough, there's a fair smattering of gore on display to reel in the audience, and it's certainly more than exists in the trailer. The difference between the two is a telling commentary upon censorship between the two nations. So, perhaps it's rather more 'UK' in its outlook than I initially thought.

When compared to the flashy, big-budget monoliths helmed by Michael Bay and his ilk, From Within is a small film, I had expected a little more than is presented here, and it really could have enhanced the experience of the film. My complaints might be due to the fact that DVDs have made us greedy little creatures, and when they arrive without the ubiquitous making of featurette or EPK, it's something of a let down. Since the film has a little more substance than the standard fare, it would have been interesting to look at how the film was made, if only from the standpoint of contemporary independent filmmaking. A definite missed opportunity.

summary

While this might not offer anything drastically innovative in terms of the genre, in this day and age, where the majority box-office is revenue is garnered from the remake and re-vision brigade, there's something to be for said for good ideas well-executed. From Within is well-made and well-acted, offering a decent whack of gore and enough scares for a night's entertainment, as well as something to ponder after the credits roll, an all too rare occurrence. This one will sit nicely in any horror fan's collection, and if you're feeling disillusioned about the current direction of your beloved genre, it's definitely worth a look, and might go some way to restoring your faith.

From Within

US 2008
86 mins
director
Phedon Papamichael
starring
Elizabeth Rice
Thomas Dekker
Kelly Blatz
Laura Allen
Adam Goldberg

DVD details
region 2
video
2.40:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Trailers
distributor
E1 Entertainment
release date
24 August 2009
review posted
21 August 2009

See all of L.K. Weston's reviews