There’s an odd dynamic both filmmakers and audiences approach with serial killer films: there’s been so many iconic killers, fictional or otherwise, within the lexicon of film and television. The expectation from the audience is now reliant on seeing a killer defined by extremity, intelligence or a gimmick, and sometimes a combination of those factors, and the challenge to the filmmaker is to create a killer that’s scary yet not recognizable or merely an amalgam of other famous murderers. In the world of independent filmmaking, this is even more of a challenge as the budget and schedule only allows for so much to be shown on-screen, making the psychological aspects all the more important for the story to work and the killer to be convincing. And because there’s rarely supernatural elements that are weaved into these stories without abandoning all suspension of disbelief, it’s up to a reliable, competent director to make the villain complex, desperate and, most importantly, human.
However, Shiver, out on DVD/Blu-ray from Image Entertainment and RLJ Entertainment, falls short on so many levels that plausibility is almost thrown out the door immediately, and every potential moment of creepiness is replaced by hammy ridiculousness. The story follows a sadistic, scarred serial killer who finds himself attracted by a prey that’s more elusive than his normal victims, ensuing a widespread, dramatic game of cat-and-mouse between the two. Based on the 1992 novel by Brian Harper, the film feels dated and tired, and most of all, it feels hokey with scenarios adapted to modern day that may have worked better in an age before cell phones and post-9/11 security measures. The emotional arc of the protagonists are palatable enough, especially in the films more minimal moments, but the Shiver always circles back into the almost-cartoonish serial killer territory time and time again, compromising any investment the viewer has in the film.
This is not to say that Shiver is a completely terrible film, but just rather an enormous disappointment when given all the elements to succeed. Director Julian Richards clearly is out of his league with this film, compromised by a godawful script by Robert Weinbach and cornered by a shooting schedule and budget that leaves hints to a greater visual element than what is translated to screen. Richard’s direction of actors is possibly the strongest part of the film, and it’s in those performances where the film begins to shine, but in the structure of the film’s narrative, those great moments are lost amid a sea of unbelievable, impossibly dumb plot points. Director of Photography Zoran Popovic does an excellent job with the film when given the time to stage the scenes as needed, as much of the rushed, digital photography feels distant and amateurish as opposed to the lush and creepy giallo-inspired staging on many of the more horrifying moments. Otherwise, the film feels incredibly conventional in its technical aspects, whether it’s the underwhelming score by Richard Band or the tedious, uninspired visual effects that are thrown at the screen throughout and are too often terribly digitized.
Fortunately, the saving grace of the film is the acting, for the most part, even if the script is detrimental to every single line of dialogue or moment of action along the way. Danielle Harris is absolutely fantastic and completely emotionally involved in the film, despite her character having an emotional arc that’s practically forcefed through expository dialogue and ineptitude. Likewise, John Jarratt gives it his all with this performance, damn near gunning for an iconic, demented performance of a man who is too far in his own pain to realize the sickness he’s inflicting on others, and is once again so damaged by the script, which often throws the character into the dumbest of situations. And the film also features excellent, committed performances from Rae Dawn Chong, playing against type as a female cop searching for Jarratt’s character, and Casper Van Dien, who is actually quite captivating in the film’s quieter moments. As for the rest of the cast, the less said, the better, as they often times reflect the disappointing script way too aptly.
Overall, Shiver is a killer thriller that’s more horrible than horrific, despite every action from Richards, Popovic and the cast to try otherwise. The film’s cheapness translates to the screen in almost offensive ways, including the incorporation of magazine images of Harris as a “killer’s fantasy” and a scene in which Harris, after confronting the killer TWICE, gets in a car with the killer, wearing only a brimmed police hat and jacket. It’s that condescending attitude towards the audience that makes the film intellectually and emotionally impenetrable, and the screenplay never attempts to budge the film out of the zone of uncomfortable atmosphere into outright depravity or even new territory. If you want to see some great performances marred by a stalled-engine of a script and a clearly leashed direction, then Shiver is your poison, but if you start cringing for all the wrong reasons, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Shiver is currently available on DVD/ Blu-ray from Image Entertainment and RLJ Entertainment, and you can get it at any major home media retail outlet.