Thorns (2023)

Thorns had its world première on Sat 26th Aug at FrightFest

As a probe satellite floats over a planet darkened by eclipse, the Iron Mountain Observatory back on Earth picks up its signal, leading resident astronomer Dr Malik (Bo Shumaker) to host – or to believe that he is hosting – a dreadful parasite, which he desperately tries to remove through horrific acts of self harm. As what is happening above seems to influence what goes on below, this opening to Thorns promises horror of a literally cosmic variety, while simultaneously evoking the notorious upward-gazing, eyeball-slicing prologue to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien andalou (1929).

Gabriel Goodman (Jon Bennett) – a talking name, given his angelic moral decency – is dispatched to investigate why Malik has gone offline at the isolated observatory. Goodman comes with more than one kind of interest in the heavens, given his status as an ex-priest – and this case has attracted not just the interest of Gabriel’s current employers at NASA, but also of his former boss the Archbishop Jenkins (Doug Bradley), who calls Gabriel on his way to the Observatory with video footage of a nun from a nearby covent trying to warn Malik of a coming Apocalypse. “I’ve seen the dark planet in my dreams,” Sister Agnes (Cassandra Schomer) had told Malik on the video, in what will in effect be her last words. For by the time Gabriel catches up with Agnes at the Observatory, she has been struck dumb.

The presence of Bradley here, for the most part literally phoning in his performance and never occupying the same space as any other actor, is a none-too-subtle hint at the influence of the Hellraiser films on writer/director Douglas Schulze’s feature. For Malik births from within him, with bloody grotesquery, a withered, eyeless demon, its head wrapped in thorns and its chest decorated with an inverted cross – and this Cenobite-like creature (again played by Shumaker and credited as ‘the Necronaut’) is determined to broadcast the signal from the dark planet and to create “Hell on Earth” (also the subtitle of the third Hellraiser film). There are, of course, other baleful influences at work here – chiefly Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997) and David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush’s The Signal (2007) – and in fact Thorns would have fit well as the film-within-a-film in Michael Hurst’s Transmission (2023), which by coincidence screened right after Schulze’s film at FrightFest, where both are having their world premières.

As Gabriel races with Agnes to stop the evil of a dark world being unleashed, Thorns both suffers from, and thrives on, its budgetary limitations. For it is confined largely to a building that never really convinces as a stand-in for an observatory, and to a very small set of characters, one of whom is mute, and another who speaks in a distorted diabolic growl that makes his every portentous utterance difficult to understand, thus leaving the film’s dialectic about humanity’s faith and Fall largely to a conversation conducted across the airwaves between Goodman and Jenkins. That said, the production’s obvious cheapness, combined with a hands-on commitment to monstrous make up and practical effects, conjures the spirit of Eighties straight-to-VHS schlock which spawned films like Hellraiser in the first place. There is real nostalgia to all this scrappiness.

Still, as the bearded Goodman acquires first a pierced side, and eventually his own crown of thorns, Schultze inverts Christian imagery for a Revelation of the devil inside.

strap: Douglas Schulze’s throwback cosmic horror brings eschatology and apocalypse down to Earth via an infernal signal from space

© Anton Bitel