From Within – After Dark Horrorfest Review
The second of “8 Films to Die For” in the 2009 edition of the After Dark Horrorfest is an improvement over DYING BREED. Although FROM WITHIN lacks DYING’S technical polish (the cinematography, for example is relatively drab, suggesting the low-budget origins), at least FROM WITHIN has an interesting premise from which the screenplay builds a reasonably intriguing supernatural mystery. The resulting horror is relatively tame for an R-rated film; the emphasis is more on a spooky sense of dread, punctuated by occasional bursts of violence and flashes of gore (the later usually seen in terms of the aftermath, not the actual perpetration). Hard-core horror hounds may be disappointed, but those with a taste for more traditional horror will find a few enjoyable moments before the film runs out of gas and resorts to a predictable twist ending.
The story begins with a Goth kid performing a ritual and then killing himself, triggering a chain of suicides, each victim having been in close proximity to the previous victim. Suspicion in the small, religious community falls on the dead boy’s brother Aidan (Thomas Dekker), who is beaten bloody by Dylan (Kelly Batz), the son of the local pastor. Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice) takes the wounded Aidan home, commencing a friendship and possibly romance – which puts her at odds with the rest of the community, including her alcoholic step-mom (Laura Allen) and mom’s ex-con boyfriend (character actor Adam Goldberg, obviously having fun, cast against type). Why are the towns-folk killing themselves one by one? Eventually Lindsay learns that the ritual suicide of Aidan’s brother was an act of revenge; their mother was burned as a witch after being blamed for the death of a young man who drowned near her home. There is only one way to stop the curse, and it requires a sacrifice…
With its supernatural suicides and high school romance in a horror context, FROM WITHIN feels like a conflation of THE HAPPENING and TWILIGHT. In the grand tradition of low-budget exploitation, FROM WITHIN dares to go in directions that glossy mainstream films would fear to tread, and it deserves some recognition for this, even if it eventually loses its way.
Although the conception of the characters is familiar, the writing and performances are strong enough to sell them as believable people. The only rotten apple in this bunch is Margo Harshman as Aidan’s snooty cousin Sadie, but perhaps we cannot blame her for delivering a one-note performance in a role that has virtually no notes to sing – Sadie serves almost no function in the plot except to be so unlikable that when the lynch mob comes, you’re almost rooting for them to get her.
With its isolated town suffering under a supernatural curse that kills people in the form of suicide, FROM WITHIN bears some similarities to Mario Bava’s Gothic horror effort KILL, BABY KILL (Operazione Paura, 1968). The Bava connection is emphasized in an early sequence set in a dress show, where mannequins haunt the shadows like ghosts waiting to strike, while lights being turned on and off hide the approach of the real threat.
This brief shuddery scene – which pointedly does not end in bloodshed – shows the film striving for a more subtle brand of horror than usually seen in the After Dark Horrorfest offerings, and it earns a certain amount of goodwill even if it is not always quite this effective. The makeup-and-contact lens look of the phantoms is moderately frightening but a bit overly familiar, and the first scene in which we actually see death inflicted is bungled, turning what should have been a show-stopping moment into a forgettable throwaway. (You’d think the sight of someone having her arms forcibly dragged over the jagged pieces of a broken window would rank in Dario Argento territory, but you would be wrong.)
The revelation that each phantom urging a new victim onto self-destruction is in fact a doppelganger of said victim provides for some eerie effects and unexpected directorial manipulation: after earlier glimpses of reflections out of synch with their owners, there is some nice moment when we see what we think is the next victim preening in front of a bathroom mirror; just when we expect her reflection to manifest in some supernatural way, the real girl steps out of a bathroom stall, and we realize that we have actually been watching her phantom double all along.
The script sets up a potentially intriguing conflict between different world views. Unfortunately, the conflict is muddled by a lack of clarity: The Christian community is (predictably) depicted as a bunch of hypocritical rednecks, but they avoid descending to the level of cartoon characterization that bedeviled THE MIST – at least until they go witch-hunting near the end, at which point the film seems to state outright that they deserve the curse that has been visited upon them. The persecuted “witch” family is initially depicted as innocent victims before the story ultimately vindicates the community’s suspicions about them. Although Aidan neither worships nor believes in Satan (which he considers a creation of the Christian religion – ignoring Satan’s pre-Christian origins in the Old Testament), he later tells us that the fatal curse was derived from a grimoire– a magical tome that typically provide instructions for summong demons. This apparent contradiction is never clarified with an explication of Aiden’s actual beliefs.
With Lindsay cast as the character trying to negotiate a middle road between the two factions, the script seems to be seeking some compromise between the two extremes, but in the end FROM WITHIN heads in a more cynical direction, suggesting that we cannot all just get along. The twist ending has a certain perverse logic to it (in attempting to destroy evil, Dylan actual perpetuates it), but the depiction of the consequences feels like a hastily executed afterthought.
With this conclusion, FROM WITHIN – again like Bava in KILLY BABY KILL – seems to be striving to present a misanthropic worldview in which the battle leaves both sides decimated. It is an interesting idea, but without Bava’s assured handling it comes across like a cheap twist – an excuse for a last-minute shock – not a profound insight into the human condition. Instead of looking into the dark depths of the human soul, we see only the superficial manipulation of the filmmakers.
FROM WITHIN (2008). Directed by Phedon Papamichael. Written by Brad Keene. Cast: Elizabeth Rice, Thomas Dekker, Kelly Blatz, Laura Allen, Rumer Willis, Margo Harshman, Brittany Robertson, Jared Harris, Steven Culp.
NOTES: Brad Keene, FROM WITHIN’s screenwriter, previously write THE GRAVEDANCERS, which was one of the “8 Films to Die For” in the first After Dark Horrorfest, back in 2006.