A slow burn of a horror drama that doesn’t build toward quite enough of a blaze to be truly memorable, “Awaken the Shadowman” nonetheless ranks a cut above the genre norm for its atmospheric and confident setup. This debut feature for director “J.S. Wilson” (actually a pseudonym for the three scenarist-producers, two of whom are also the male leads) finds estranged brothers reunited over their mother’s disappearance, but increasingly troubled even more by weird goings-on in the town where they grew up. Some horror fans will decry the lack of gore — or even much violence — here. More discerning ones, however, may just lament that a film with such a strong first two-thirds grows rushed and underwhelming in the last lap.
After a brief prologue depicting an imperiled young woman and baby in 1964 Connecticut, we meet present-day protagonist Adam (James Zimbardi), a Redding, Calif. construction worker struggling to meet the needs of his small family — to the evident discontent of wife Beth (Emily Somers), who hoped they’d be on steadier financial footing now that they have an infant daughter to care for. In any case, those woes must take a temporary backseat when Adam gets a call from his sibling Jake (Skyler Caleb). They’ve been incommunicado since Adam left town (amidst a murky family fallout), but it’s an emergency: Their widowed mother Evette (Jean Smart) has been missing for several days, with no sign where she might be or what might’ve happened to her.
Adam, Beth and baby Emma drive south to comparatively upscale Orcutt in So. Cal. wine country, where he awkwardly reunites with brother Jake and his bombshell wife Christy (Andrea Hunt) — who happens to be Adam’s ex, one of many promising complications the team-written screenplay introduces without ever really exploring. They’re also greeted on arrival by a bewildering number of members from “Gateways,” a local “bereavement group” that’s “like AA without the steps,” and to which Evette belongs (or belonged). Their good-neighbor support is all very well, yet also a bit creepily intrusive — particularly when it comes from leader Lawrence (Raam Weinfeld), a mere teen who’s nonetheless already got a fully developed vibe of cult guru about him.
Gateways’ pervasive grip on the entire town disturbs Adam, even as Beth grows enviously attracted by the materially comfortable life everyone seems to enjoy here. She falls under its spell — perhaps a literal, supernatural one — while he runs around trying to pry information about his mother from residents. Friendly or hostile, they all seem to be hiding something. Things grow even more suspicious when Beth discovers a secret passageway in mom’s house, and hidden within it an entire room of antique dolls grotesquely altered as if for some ritual purpose. What the hell is going on here?
We glean soon enough that it has something to do with the titular Shadowman, a phantom whose name, height, long limbs and claw-like hands seem designed to evoke the notorious internet-meme creation Slenderman. Like that modern-mythological spook, this elusive phantom preys primarily upon children; especially “pure, innocent” babes like Emma. His brief nocturnal appearances here are aptly unnerving — though revelations of his precise nature, origin, etc. are yet more key elements “Awaken” teases intriguingly only to deliver less of than expected. Add to that pile virtually all the support characters (notably including Robert R. Shafer as the missing mother’s surly ex-boyfriend, and Sophie Labelle as an addled conspiracy theorist), who likewise make strong first impressions but then are given too little to do.
Bolstered by its generally strong performances, “Awaken the Shadowman” is so nicely unsettled in mood, assuredly paced (by Woodrow Wilson Hancock III), handsomely shot (again by “J.S. Wilson,” i.e. Hancock, Zimbardi and Caleb) and effectively scored (Douglas Pipes) that one wishes as much patient care had gone into the script. Unlike most horror opuses today, this one actually has a not-baldly-derivative premise good enough to warrant leisurely narrative unfolding. Like Ira Levin-derived classics “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives” (or the very recent “Get Out”), this story hinges on gradually exposing the evil of a whole community with a hideous hidden agenda. “Awaken” is fine so long as it keeps us anticipating more. But when things wrap up too quickly, leaving too many dangling threads, there’s a sense of letdown. Whereas brevity is usually a virtue in this genre, these 83 minutes make you wish the collaborators had developed their themes and subplots enough to fill two full hours.