RELEASE DATE: November 4, 2016
DIRECTOR: John Fallon
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 76 minutes
“You used to have it all,” a character tells Thomas (Michael Paré), early on in John Fallon’s The Shelter. We come to realize quite early on that whatever he had, he certainly doesn’t have it anymore. He’s disheveled and homeless, an alcoholic who mugs passers-by so he can afford more booze. His life has plunged to the deepest depths and he doesn’t see a way up from rock bottom. Sooner or later, Fallon fills in the loose ends and shows us what happened to our protagonist – a number of years ago, his pregnant wife Maryam (Gayle James) committed suicide, and Thomas has felt immensely guilty, believing he was largely responsible for her depression and death. The ghosts of his past have never left him.
One night, Thomas discovers a suburban house whose front door lies open. He goes inside. There’s no one home. Eventually, he decides to spend the evening there, figuring he has nowhere else to go. However, as the night goes on, he begins to wonder if the house is possessed by otherworldly forces. The doors open and close arbitrarily. He begins to have intense hallucinations. He hears voices. Soon, he finds himself plunged into another world, experiencing another reality, an alternate life of sorts, as the mystery of this shelter begins to grow far more powerful.
When The Shelter gets going, it’s a fairly ingenious and well-intentioned blend of fantasy and supernatural horror. The problem, however, is that Fallon’s screenplay spends too long revving up and then fails to successfully follow through. The biggest “twist” in the story doesn’t kick in until nearly halfway through the movie, already quite short at an hour and some change, and moves off the heat just when things start to get interesting. Everything ends up at a finale which feels like it either came from another movie or followed another ten minutes of material that was accidentally erased. A number of enticing subtexts, like a direct religious parallel, are vaguely referenced to in the final scenes, but never explored in depth, leaving the viewer immensely frustrated and unsatisfied.
This pacing conflict makes The Shelter suffer both from times when it feels too short and times when it feels too long. It’s detrimental to successfully highlighting the positive elements on screen, including a strong central performance from Michael Paré. His acting is largely nonverbal – when he arrives at the house, he is alone, and successfully accomplishes a number of moments, ranging from obvious breakdowns to soft, subtle reactions.
He is able to work with the material, even when the story and character development is stretched rather thin. Paré is able to add a degree of context to Thomas that Fallon never seems to directly indicate. There is also a strong visual presence which works as an asset– as the film moves from act to act, the aesthetic palette of the story adjusts wildly, as murky city streets at night lead to linear, clean and dark interiors, to the hazy soft whites of dream-like settings and magic hour lakeside exchanges as Thomas begins to enter the fantasy realm.
Taking all of these things into consideration, a conclusion begins to take shape. The Shelter is a movie which has talent to offer on nearly every level except the script which acts as its precise foundation. It’s the equivalent of a building which is impeccably decorated and beautifully structured, but is built on a steep hill. It shakes and quivers and crumbles, frequently on the precipice of collapse. There is never a point where you can fully grab on and have a solid mounting point to witness the events unfold.
Looking at the invaluable IMDb, I have discovered that this is Fallon’s directorial debut. He shows his chops here as a talented visual artist who can direct strong performances and ratchet up appropriate moods when the script calls for it. That he can’t overcome the pitfalls of his script could be attributed to the presumed difficulties in working through a full-length project. There is something here of great value, but it just has trouble emerging from muddy storytelling.