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It starts with sex. A weathered looking man named Thomas (Michael Paré) lies with a young girl (Amy Wickenheiser) in her bedroom. They know each other but not intimately, only sexually. She has a boyfriend and Thomas once knew her father, who he didn’t know passed on two years earlier. When she can’t offer him a place to sleep for the night, he gets up to leave and she asks if she will ever see him again. “No,” he says and disappears into the night.
We learn that Thomas once had a family and lived a comfortable life in a nice home. But he also had a girlfriend on the side and it is for this reason that his world began to crumble. Now, having lost everything and living alone on the streets, he gets by on charity or violence, taking what young women will give him and stealing from young men who cross him. He is a man in despair, riddled with guilt and self-loathing, trying to make it all go away with drink and meaningless sex. When neither are at hand, he wanders the streets in a hoodie, a nobody cast to the wiles of the wind.
But something seems different about Thomas. He is flooded with memories of his errors but also of religious symbolism. On a dark sidewalk, he steps on sharp tack, which pierces his boot with such an abnormal shot of pain, he collapses to the concrete, unconscious. When he wakes, the house next to him seems like a beacon, its windows and door lit up with stadium intensity. He approaches and enters, as there seems no sign of anyone home. Inside, he finds food, a bath, and oddly, a teddy bear that reminds of him of one once seen in his former home, belonging to a daughter that never got the chance to be born. Worse though, he finds the doors are locked and the windows sealed. They can’t be broken and he can’t leave. But that’s only the start. He discovers he is not alone.
Directed by John Fallon, The Shelter is less a horror film than a psychological character study of a figure tormented by his transgressions and forced to face them. Clearly, we are watching a man trapped in his own personal hell, and there are some genuine moments that jolt, yet this is not a jump-scare movie. Thomas is living with regrets for choices that he didn’t realize would have such devastating consequences. Like a Dickens tale, he is visited by the apparitions of those he wronged and made to realize the value of what he might have had and the cost for letting it slip away.
Fallon mixes some effectively creative imagery and impressive visuals in among the often dreary grey overtones. A pall of sallow light keeps the haunted home in a kind of nebulous reality, and while it takes Thomas time to figure out what is happening, we catch on from the moment we see it. What works is the disjointed timelines and fragmented, often eerily Plasticine-feeling flashbacks that never quite feel right, as intended. There’s some clever moments and writing here that elevate the sometime slower scenes of Thomas exploring the house. Even at a brisk 76 minutes, there are times that feel padded. But the simple concept is strangely compelling as Thomas journeys through his descending levels of damnation. A transition shot from window to water to boat is very well done.
This is all Paré, who has been a very busy actor since his star-making debut in the 1980s, but keeping mostly to independent films and television appearances. Here, he carries the film, despite a small number of good supporting players who linger in the peripheral. He mostly works in anger and sorrow, but he wears a burden in his shoulders and regret in his eyes. It’s a very good performance. The film gets a little preachy and overtly religious the more it burrows down its rabbit hole, ending with an on-screen printed Bible verse that is a little too on the nose, but the last shot is a powerful one and Fallon lingers on it just long enough. This is a solid thriller.
Director: John Fallon
Writers: John Fallon
Stars: Michael Paré, Lauren Alexandra, Rachel G. Whittle
Genre: Horror, Thriller