Writer/director Sheldon Wilson’s “Shallow Ground” is an ambitious attempt at combining several aspects of the horror genre into one blood soaked package. Although “Shallow Ground” is at heart a variation on the venerable woodland slasher motif, the film also incorporates, to moderate success, murder mystery style plotting and vaguely apocalyptic supernatural elements. From the very start it is quite obvious that this is a film determinedly based around a secret, which is unlikely to be revealed without long stretches of narrative foreplay.
Unfortunately, as with so many other films of this type, “Shallow Ground” suffers from the fact that both of its denouements fail to satisfy, leaving the viewer feeling bewildered and disappointed. That having been said, the film as a whole is entertaining, fast paced and actually quite gripping during its early stages, before it sinks beneath the weight of its badly articulated and ultimately senseless profundities.
The film opens in startling fashion, with a blood covered, naked young boy walking into the police station of a small woodland town on the eve of the station’s abandonment. Although the boy refuses to speak, he carries a knife used in a vicious, unsolved murder which took place a year ago, for which the sheriff still blames himself for failing to prevent. As the sheriff and his deputies investigate, the bodies begin to pile up, dark secrets are uncovered, and it becomes clear that something far more sinister may be unfolding.
Aware of the usual narrative limitations of this type of film, Wilson overcompensates by writing in a subplot for almost every character, and spends the first hour raising an endless stream of enigmatic questions. Although this does make for a complex and at times engaging plot, a rarity in the modern genre film, it unfortunately also robs the proceedings of any real focus, and as such the film’s various threads feel somewhat disparate. Similarly, the downside to the film’s short running time is a feeling that things were rushed, and that more background on the characters would have made certain disclosures in the film far more convincing. As it stands, their motivations are often unclear, and many of their actions, most notably their stubborn refusal to simply leave, seem to fly in the face of reason.
There is a fair amount of tension throughout, both from the viewer’s attempts to decipher the film’s obscurities, and from the fact that Wilson includes a fair amount of action. There are a number of reasonable scare scenes, mostly built around the killer stalking his victims, or the increasingly bizarre displays of the boy’s unearthly powers. The film is very bloody in places, with several gruesome murders and the wonderfully gratuitous use of fishhooks and wire.
Wilson shows some talent as a director, giving the film a creepy look and making the most of the woodland setting. There is an atmosphere which recalls the heyday of the classic “Friday the 13th” series rather than its insipid modern brethren, which gives “Shallow Ground” an almost nostalgic feel. The film is visually quite impressive, if uninspired, and looks far better than its limited budget would suggest.
“Shallow Ground” is a competent and reasonably thrilling piece of genre film making that nevertheless falls apart during the final act. The majority of the film’s many revelations are either nonsensical or disappointingly obtuse, and are poor rewards for the viewer’s patience. The killer’s identity in particular is a major let down, and is laughable rather than chilling, and which serves mainly to underline a number of gaping holes in the plot.
Still, although the viewer will likely feel frustrated when the credits roll, for the most part “Shallow Ground” is an entertaining ride, and one which at least shows some ambition in shaking off the shackles of the genre. Wilson proves himself to be a director worth watching, and one of those who, provided he can refine his narrative technique, has the potential to breathe new life into the genre.
Sheldon Wilson (director) / Sheldon Wilson (screenplay)
CAST: Timothy V. Murphy …. Jack Sheppard
Stan Kirsch …. Stuart Dempsey
Lindsey Stoddart …. Laura Russell
Patricia McCormack …. Helen Reedy
Rocky Marquette …. Boy
Natalie Avital …. Darby Owens
Chris Hendrie …. Albert Underhill
Tara Killian …. Amy Underhill
Myron Natwick …. Harvey