Have you ever woken up in a dreamy haze, completely unable to move while feeling a strange anonymous presence watching you somewhere in the room nearby? No? Well, believe it or not, I actually have. Several times in fact. It's a phenomenon called sleep paralysis, and while not exactly common, according to good old Wikipedia, about 6.2% of the population has experienced it, usually as a result of dramatic changes in sleeping habits. In my case, it occurred during long afternoon naps in college after spending all-nighters writing scripts. While I certainly found the experience to be odd, never once did I think to myself, "Hey, this must be the result of a tiny shadow demon stalking me!" Instead, I just sort of assumed that it was a perfectly normal, scientifically explainable incident. Silly me. Thanks to 'Shadow People,' I now know the truth! A quasi-documentary supernatural thriller, the film reveals the eerie "reality" behind my sleeping dysfunction. Unfortunately, despite some spooky potential, it turns out that the paranormal explanation is somehow even less compelling than the boring scientific one. How the hell did that happen?
Supposedly based on a true story, the film follows a radio talk show host, Charlie Crowe (Dallas Roberts), who is struggling to increase his audience. When a young man calls into the show claiming that he's being preyed upon by dangerous living shadows, Crowe just scoffs it off as nonsense. That is, until the caller subsequently dies of Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. Now intrigued, Crowe starts to look into the existence of these so called "shadow people," who paralyze and then kill their victims while they sleep. With more and more people dying inexplicably, a CDC representative, Sophie Lacombe (Alison Eastwood), decides to join Crowe in his investigation. Together they will have to stop the mysterious fatalities before they become the shadows' next targets.
Following in the footsteps of 'The Fourth Kind,' the filmmakers have gone to rather extraordinary lengths to try and convince viewers that what they are watching actually happened. To this end, alleged documentary material is weaved into the runtime, ostensibly depicting genuine archive footage, news clips, and interviews with the real subjects involved, often shown in split screen along with the traditional narrative reenactment. Of course, this is all complete bullshit, and while some of the commentators and reporters are actually who they say they are, the "real life" versions of the main characters are all just actors. So, just for the record, despite what the film's initial disclaimer insists, the specific events and characters depicted in the story are not real (though unrelated cases of sleep paralysis and SUNDS are legitimate). I know that found footage and fake documentary horror flicks are all the rage now, but I just don't see the appeal of all this silly trickery. To me, the whole concept is just kind of dumb, and only serves to mask an exceedingly thin plot behind an increasingly overused gimmick.
Stripped away of all its mockumentary deception, the narrative portion of the film is surprisingly underdeveloped. At the end of the day, there just isn’t a whole lot here, and beyond the frequent archival clips and initial premise, very little really happens. Crowe's overall investigation is limp, with hardly any twists or turns. Instead, the plot is pretty much a straight line. There's some attempt to bolster the story with a standard father/son conflict, and a skeptic/believer partnership in the vein of Mulder and Scully, but neither of these beats are fleshed out. In fact, Alison Eastwood's character is essentially a total nonentity. Even worse, the climax lacks any real oomph, and the film just sort of peters out toward a whimpering conclusion.
Despite the gimmicky presentation and banal plot, the movie's performances and visuals are decent, and the core of the idea shows a lot of promise. There are some effectively creepy moments involving the sinister title characters, and the director does a solid job of engendering a frightening atmosphere. The most successful element of the narrative ends up owing quite a lot to 'The Ring,' but despite this clear inspiration, there's some merit in the execution. Much like that earlier film, a creepy recording becomes a central component in the supernatural happenings, and the unsettling tape plays out a lot like some kind of deranged DHARMA initiative video from 'Lost.' Sadly, these moments of genuine eeriness are few and far between, and while the writer does weave in real folklore related to sleep paralysis and SUNDS, the ultimate mythology they create is disappointingly mundane.
'Shadow People' uses real life phenomenon to place a supernatural twist on some of man's most basic fears, but the results are unfortunately lackluster. We all have to sleep, and tying horror into that concept makes for an instantly relatable premise that could have been a solid jumping off point for some potent thrills. Alas, with few exceptions, that's just not the case. The documentary "true story" approach is unnecessary and really only serves to take the viewer out of the movie rather than enrich it. An audience doesn't need to be tricked into thinking a film is real in order to be scared or entertained, they just need to be engaged through interesting storytelling and creativity. Somewhere along the way, the filmmakers seem to have forgotten that important fact.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Anchor Bay brings 'Shadow People' to Blu-ray on a BD-25 disc housed in a keepcase. After some warnings and logos, the screen transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A coded.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Though never exactly impressive, this is a solid transfer that features an appropriately stylized look.
The source is competent, but noise is visible in a few dark scenes and horizontal banding is apparent in some establishing shots. The image has an occasionally soft appearance, but overall detail is good with decent depth. The archival and documentary footage comes from a variety of sources, and while these clips aren't always top-notch, the occasionally lower grade material helps to further the director's "realistic" intentions. The color palette is deliberately desaturated, reinforcing the dreary, spooky atmosphere, and though there isn't much pop to the picture, the style suits the content well. Contrast is high with intense whites and deep blacks. As one might expect from the title, there are many dimly lit scenes throughout, and thankfully shadow delineation is good, rendering the deadly silhouetted creatures in all their obscure glory.There are some minor artifacts and clarity is never particularly striking, but the movie makes its way to Blu-ray with a respectable transfer that preserves its intended look well.
The film is presented with an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track along with optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. The mix can be front-loaded and basic, but the track comes alive during the movie's scarier moments, bringing some jolt to the experience.
Dialogue is clear and precise throughout. Like many horror films, the sound design makes frequent use of sudden loud effects and music cues aimed at startling the audience, and this tactic works well enough with good dynamic range and deep low frequencies. Creepy effects like distant footsteps and creaking floorboards make their way around the room with appropriate directionality and imaging, and the various supernatural thrills are all given a welcome sense of eerie atmosphere. With that said, some of the ambiance can be a little overpowered and forced.
Outside of its spookier sequences, the mix is rather restrained, but the filmmakers make good use of the soundstage when it matters most.
'Shadow People' is yet another mediocre supernatural thriller that attempts to capitalize on the mockumentary, found-footage craze. There's some potential in the premise, but the gimmicky execution is surprisingly dull and paper thin. The video transfer and audio mix are both effective with no major issues. We only get one supplement and it has little to do with the actual film. It's a fairly disposable entry in the genre, but fans of similar "true story" horror flicks might want to give this a rent.