The Shadow Within opens with a woman giving birth to a “lovely little boy.” Oh, yeah, and one that’s not so lovely, Jacques. Fast forward nine years. One of the twins, Maurice, is a schoolboy working on an exercise book at the kitchen table. His mother is forcing him to go to the funeral of another boy who has died from diphtheria.
It is soon obvious that Jacques died at some point in the past nine years. Was it at birth? From diphtheria? The village in which Maurice (Laurence Belcher) and his mother (Hayley J. Williams) reside includes very few men, due to the war (WWII). The diphtheria epidemic is threatening, and a female doctor (Beth Winslet; yes, Kate’s sister) is trying to insure that the children of the village are inoculated against it.
A thriller with an emphasis on the supernatural, The Shadow Within is more creepy than scary. Chilling, yet low-key, special effects join with sinister locations to provide a dark, depressing Old World atmosphere that is as much a part of the story as the characters. There are camera shots that are stunning in their artistry, which add even more to the total effect.
Maurice is somehow in contact with Jacques; he is also threatened by him. Maurice knows what Jacques wants, but is unable to share this information. His mother, Marie Dumont, still mourns the death of the second twin and behaves as though he was the cherished child, resenting Maurice. She is cold, remote, and emotionally cruel to her living son.
Marie is a rude recluse who claims to be home-schooling her son at a time when school attendance was compulsory. She limits Maurice to the house and grounds, and–should he cross a line drawn in the snow–she is severe and punishing.
At the dead boy's funeral there are a number of disturbing images that hint at Jacques' presence and the cause of his death. Maurice believes he sees the dead boy move, and his reaction and behavior convinces the local women (who have all lost children) that Maurice has a “gift.” (The film’s funniest line occurs at the funeral when the priest arrives and one of the mourners notes that he doesn’t seem to be drunk yet.)
A medium influences Marie into using Maurice’s “gift” to help other mothers contact their dead children. Reluctant at first, Marie gives in. Big mistake. At a creepy séance, five mothers sit around a table, bringing forth relics of their deceased children, hoping Maurice will let them enjoy, once again, their company. The audience knows nothing good can come of this. And nothing does.
Some of the events following the séance are foreseeable, others are surprising. Very soon after, one of the mothers turns up dead in a church (in the confessional no less), causing the priest to drop his bottle of hooch. When she enters the church, we are sure this is not going to be an innocent novena, and we soon see a shadow approach her. While her death is certainly not pleasant, the viewer is spared the gory details (a nice touch that emphasizes the creepiness factor).
Things go really bad at a second séance, and as Marie wrestles her son into his bed as he is twitching and levitating, Dr. Prevost arrives. She and Marie get in a tussle of their own, which is the low point of the film (especially when Marie bites the doctor on the neck and the audience wonders, “vampire?”). There must have been a better way to handle this scene which, although action-filled, brings the movie to a dead stop.
Following the women fighting, the movie quickly builds to a predictable ending. In conventional filmmaking there are only a few ways that a movie like The Shadow Within will end. The “shadow” twin will be exorcised, there is no “shadow” twin—they are both the same boy, or everyone will think the “shadow” twin has been exorcised, yet at the last moment we get a hint that he hasn’t. The Shadow Within is conventional in this regard; there is no surprise whatsoever to the ending. However, you’ll have to watch it yourself to find out how it does end.
Echoing well known and popular films such as Sixth Sense and The Other, The Shadow Within is a tidy, simple story of terrible events. Maurice seems to be at the center, but Marie is the more interesting and complex character because of her strange take on motherhood. Although this film does not compare to classic entries in this genre, it is entertaining on its own level. Yes, it’s predictable, but it is also somewhat satisfying. It deserves kudos for being subtle rather than graphic. A trailer is the sole bonus feature.
Bottom line: Would I buy/rent The Shadow Within? Yes, rent. It’s not the great American horror film, but it’s diverting entertainment that should be watched while popcorn is ingested.