A homeless man named Thomas (Michael Pare) finds shelter for the night within a lavish abandoned two-story house. He eventually discovers that he is not alone and the premises won't let him leave.
Michael Paré as Thomas
Lauren Alexandra as Josephine (as Lauren Thomas)
Rachel G. Whittle as Annie
Amy Wickenheiser as Maggie
This movie feels like a half hearted religious tract, the kind of nonsense Kirk Cameron is churning out these days. I don’t fault The Shelter for having a point of view, but it’s totally hamfisted in its execution. There is also a noticeable lack of filmmaking technique. A homeless man named Thomas, (Michael Paré), squats for the night in an abandoned suburban home. He soon learns he is being haunted by a ghost from his past, intent on destroying him.
Writer-director John Fallon goes out of his way to depict Thomas as an irrefutably sad sack. At the very beginning, we find him in one of the most awkwardly staged sex scenes I have seen in awhile, and I’ve seen Blue is the Warmest Color. A crucifix rattles on the wall above the shaking headboard. Symbolism, people. This is as subtle as The Shelter gets.
Look, I’m far from a puritan. But sex in movies is a narrative tool, quite different from what it is in real life. Compare Fallon’s opening to a truly brilliant film from the late Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The purpose in Lumet’s movie is violation. Nobody hides under bed sheets. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei are completely naked, exposed. Since their characters are total strangers to us at that point, we immediately feel uncomfortable, like we’re being forced to participate in something we don’t want to do. Lo and behold, that’s the theme of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. So the sex scene is justified.
But what purpose does it serve in The Shelter? The woman Thomas beds does not appear again. A similar, and far more graphic, scene occurs near the end. It involves characters we’ve gotten to know, and more importantly crucial plot points. The opening is redundant. Salacious titillation, involving two people wearing more clothes than they would have on at the beach.
The Shelter is really a padded short film. Thomas wanders around a suspiciously empty city, doing nothing of consequence, until he finally breaks into the abandoned home at minute twenty. One of his early stops is a dive bar. A superfluous bartender character asks him the story of his life. “There was a time when I had it all,” Thomas bemoans. Bet you or anyone could write the next line. “Then I lost it.” Thanks for the cliché, Thomas. Down another whiskey.
Is there anything in the film I do like? Well, it’s only an hour and sixteen minutes. One hour and sixteen bloody minutes, and the thing still feels longer than Andy Warhol’s real time movie of a man sleeping. Michael Paré isn’t remotely believable as a homeless man. He’s too healthy, too handsome. He never quite sells his internal anguish. Everyone around him, Lauren Alexandra and Rachel G. Whittle in particular, try their damndest to wring some drama out of this damp rag. But it’s just a sanctimonious path to nada, infinitely more effective than a sleeping pill.
Does anyone remember The Ben Stiller Show from the early nineties? There’s a sketch where Stiller plays a shock jock who slowly, hilariously slowly, discovers he’s actually in hell. The clues are blatantly obvious. The temperature rises, devil horns appear everywhere, walls bleed, the radio station is even named W.D.V.L., but Stiller just can’t put it together. Thomas is stupider than that, and the signs are just as transparent. A crown of thorns, icons of the Virgin Mary, a blank Bible that writes itself as Thomas recalls his past sins. Abandon all hope, my friends.
Then in the third act the story restarts completely. I’m not even joking. It’s almost as if writer John Fallon said to himself, “Oh sh*t, this doesn’t make any sense. Better have an extended flashback to explain everything.” You know, there’s something to be said for linear storytelling. I know puzzle boxes like The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, and The Sixth Sense are cool. But those films at least knew the basics of structure, before they played around with them.
In the case of The Shelter, the narrative is embarrassingly broken. Scenes often flashback to things right after they happen, in order to show us their importance, rather than us inferring their importance because we know what the hell they are. If you don’t know, how can you care? And Fallon thinks we all have the intelligence of garden slugs. “Am I dead?” Thomas asks himself at one point, a line clearly added in post-production. It’s just insulting.
The cinematography from Bobby Holbrook is too glossy, too artificial to create any kind of realism. The special effects look like something a first-year film student would make on Adobe After Effects in 1997. The ending is horrible, and not in the way that would make a horrorhound happy. Walking through a city street on fire, (hey, do you think this is hell?) Thomas cradles his magical book of atonement to his chest. I was half expecting him to turn to the camera and ask, “have you ever heard of Dianetics?”
The Shelter is currently available on VOD.