Dead Northern 2022 Festival Review – Shadow Vaults

During the dreary days of the pandemic, a group of tight knit friends from the New York theatre scene gather together for their weekly online Dungeon and Dragons campaign. This time round a new member is introduced to the group, Meredith (Taylor Richardson). Part of the campaign sees them sharing ghost stories to set the scene and warm Meredith to the exciting evening ahead. However, after the drinks begin to flow and things get heated. The tales become sinister, little do they know that one story will change the course of events far more than they could ever imagine. 

Rejuvenating the independent horror scene is Kevin T. Morales’s ultra nerve mangling horror Shadow Vaults. During the tumultuous era of quarantine periods, online gatherings, and panic buying the quest for fresh entertainment was a rocky road, but amidst all the cinematic lows was Morales’s future hit Shadow Vaults, which he belovedly directed, wrote, and co-produced. 

The talent tree runs within Morales’s family line, with his uncle being the Academy Award winning filmmaker Victor Fleming, creator of Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). With an already rich career within the industry for years, 2019 saw Morales make a jump to creating feature films with his debut Generation Wrecks, a touching and hilarious comedy brimming with nostalgic delight, also starring Heather Matarazzo, Emily Bergl, and Alice Kremelberg. 

Desktop horror has bloomed in the last couple of years, with notable entries such as The Den (2013), Unfriended (2014), and Host (2020) bringing the horrors of the World Wide Web to screen. Shadow Vaults makes use of the familiar setting of internet chat rooms and video calls to encapsulate that intimate ambience that online engagement triggers, knowing that although you may be talking to people and have access to endless forums and fellow virtual users, the cold truth is that in reality it’s just you, alone, in an empty space vulnerable to anything and anyone…

Shadow Vaults exudes an eerie tension that thrusts the viewer right into the film, as if they are joining along with the meeting, like a phantom member. Further amalgamating this sense of personalness is the very socially rooted context and setting of the film. Set during a pandemic where company is rare and loneliness is the new tone, comes a great texture of isolation and abandonment where unprecedented times already have nations on alert. When combining this timely background with a malignant overtone steeped in trauma and biases the claustrophobic mood is enhanced, along with the ever classic element of uncertainty. Predictably is what breaks a film. No matter the genre or subject, obviousness is the curse. Shadow Vaults utilises the precariousness of its background to enrich a whole new level of extremity. For instance, the essence of Shadow Vaults belongs to a classic ghost story, one that starts off as sharing folklore, making easy entertainment for its listeners, wrapping the viewer up in a spooky but comfortable blanket, before Morales brutally snatches away the security to reveal a harsh ghostly pathos that dives into cycles of abuse, spirals of violence, and blissful ignorance. 

Shadow Vault’s gripping hold on the viewer will have audiences sleeping with the lights on, thanks to the unstoppable sense of dread, chilling tonal portrayal of close bonds, and the all encompassing terrifying aura. As the film unravels we learn all sorts of sordid secrets that have been lurking under the surface for some time, bubbling under the pressure waiting to implode. And although Morales could have easily relied on shock to determine the mood, he meticulously embellished the characters to be so entwined with the inner workings of the horror that the terror becomes interwoven and malevolent, sneaking up on you before you’ve even had the chance to run. As the group holds a friendship dynamic that has been held strong for eight years, the threat level is always going to be more advanced than in an environment with strangers. And due to the enclosed online setting, naturally it’s impossible to not feel a part of the group; thus directly positioning the horror close to home. 

The element of safe spaces being infected is not lost, even throughout the telling of the bone-chilling ghost stories. And it’s sufficient to say that the tales certainly hold up, namely through the staircase-like method Morales’s uses to escalate the alarm. The recitals begin off with formidable accounts of faceless otherworldly beings, legless ghouls, and haunted dolls nicely spicing up your senses, meaning that by the time you get to *thee* story (definitely to be experienced with no prior knowledge), the atmosphere is so taut that it would take nerves of steel to not shudder at the sheer thought of what’s going on. 

Shadow Vaults travels far deeper under the surface than many of its kind, and in doing so dismantles the strict and disquieting truth of evil. Horror is indiscriminate, there is no shield to prevent the fear, instead trauma is universal. And that actuality is electrifying. 

Check out the film and much more at this years festival, tickets here

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