Dir: Sheldon Wilson, 2005, US, 97 mins
Cast: Timothy V. Murphy, Stan Kirsch, Lindsey Stoddart, Pattry McCormack, Rocky Marquette
Shallow Ground begins evocatively, with a naked teenager boy covered head to toe with blood, striding purposefully through a green forest. His destination is Shallow Valley Sheriff’s Station, where he is handcuffed and placed in a room at the back by the deputies, Laura and Stuart (Kirsch and Stoddart). Being only deputies, they immediately call troubled Sheriff Jack (Murphy), who recently broke Laura’s heart, to come and instruct them. But it soon transpires that the boy is no ordinary teenager – could it be that he holds the key to the brutal killing of a local girl in the forest one year earlier, for which Jack has been wracked with guilt ever since?
Director Wilson says that he drew inspiration for his film from the concept of the adolescent white male, who he describes as ‘Time bombs just waiting to go off’. Certainly it makes for a strong starting image, and there seems to be a sub-textual message in his film regarding the privileged position held by certain individuals, moulded by a Republican, family-based ideology. Given that the horror genre, with films such as Night of the Living Dead and Halloween, has long been a medium for exposing prejudice and hypocrisy within contemporary American society it is nice to see a film that might be said to be carrying on with this tradition. Unfortunately, what made these earlier films so compelling was also (believe it or not) the fact that at the time they came out they were fairly original. Wilson soon messes it up by using his own originality as a mere foil to unravel a bog-standard plot involving a homicidal maniac and lashings of gore. It’s a pity, because the gore is largely gratuitous - or rather superfluous, since Wilson does not actually explore the psychopathic tendencies of his killer-in-the-woods, assuming instead that the mere fact of being psychopathic is explanation enough. The scariest bits by far involve his starting concept, the mysterious blood-soaked boy (played to perfection by Rocky Marquette). One of the most chilling moments comes when it is discovered that that the boy is not the only mysterious blood-soaked teenager to have turned up.
Shallow Ground suffers from a few rather lazy plot holes (“...if they can’t touch him, how do they handcuff the boy in the first place..? Are you trying to tell me Deputy Stuart just happened to notice the boy’s face was an Identikit of all the killer’s victims..?” one might quiz Wilson). The film suffers far more, however, in the casting department. Murphy in particular is so wooden as Sheriff Jack he practically blends in with the forest. At one point in the film when he assures a girl who he has found hanging in the woods that he’ll be right back, her disbelief is appropriately palpable. Later on Laura begs him to leave her handcuffed to a car and go after the killer alone: the only logical motivation she can have for this seems to be an unwillingness to share her screen time with Murphy. However it is by no means all Murphy’s fault, since his dialogue must have taken Wilson all of ten minutes to think up. The music and sound effects also hamper as much as they help Shallow Ground – great clichéd chords crash down at the slightest vestige of suspense. The result is trashy to say the least.
These gripes aside, Shallow Ground is in many places perfectly scary in its own right and is likely to provide more than a passing diversion for devoted horror fans. Plus Wilson’s central inspiration is certainly rather disturbing: one feels wary of criticizing the film too much lest he develop a sequel in which a group of derided low-budget writer/directors piece themselves together in one body and set about bloodily avenging themselves on the reviewers who slated their films.
Shallow Ground is available to buy for £16.99. Features include 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Stereo 2.0, Optional 5.1 and DTS, English HOH subtitles, Audio commentaries (x2), Behind the scenes featurette, Film notes and trailer