There’s a lot to like in The Shed, the feature debut of writer-director Frank Sabatella, but there is also, well, just a lot here. Part coming-of-age thriller, part horror, The Shed almost collapses under the weight of its own ambition and its complicated structure.
The film opens with a man, Joe Bane (Frank Whaley, a great actor in a tiny role here), running through the woods, pursued by a cloaked figure. The figure turns out to be some sort of vampire, who attacks Bane with bloody results. Bane barely escapes after the creature dissolves into dust, and holes up in the eponymous shed. In the next scene, Stanley (Jay Jay Warren), a handsome teenager, wakes from a dream that turns into a nightmare, where he’s eating breakfast with his loving parents who are then shown dead. When he wakes up, his grandfather is yelling and Stanley’s previously flawless face is marred by exhaustion and bruises.
Stanley’s grandfather (Timothy Bottom, yes, that Timothy Bottoms!) is abusive and unpleasant, and Stanley and his best friend Dommer (Cody Kostro, who looks like a younger Cillian Murphy) are bullied by the tough guys at school. His junior high school sweetie Roxy (Sofia Happonen) now hangs out with the cool kids, but still casts sidelong glances at him in the hallways. There is a retro quality to the setting: no smartphones to be seen, older cars, so overall it feels like we may be in the 1990s, but it’s hard to tell. The teenage characters also voice strangely old-fashioned dialogue at times, like when Dommer, at the end of a hilarious rant about how he will visit revenge on the school bullies, says, “Goodnight, Irene,” referencing a song made popular in the 1950s. Dommer and Stanley are both ridiculously attractive, raising the question of why they’re portrayed as unpopular. Stanley’s a sort of heartthrob in the James Dean mode: misunderstood, smart-alecky, but kindhearted.
Stanley is also well known to the local police, though the sheriff (Wayward Pines’ Siobhan Fallon Hogan) is sympathetic to his being an orphan. Speaking of which: We never find out how his parents died, one of a number of plot elements that isn’t fleshed out. We also learn he has a history of juvenile detention, but not what for. It’s as if Sabatella is afraid to use flashbacks or other expository devices to solidify this character. Then there’s his uncanny ability to identify the strange being that lives in the shed, and his savvy preparations to vanquish it, making it look like he’s read plenty of Bram Stoker and Stephen King.
The strong cast carries the occasionally shaky story very well, and the cinematography (by Nightmare Cinema’s Matthias Schubert), special effects, and direction are all very high quality. The pacing is good, the jump scares genuinely scary, and I even found the coming-of-age themes artfully rendered. I’d have liked to see some more context for the creature in the shed: why was this vampire there? And how did this troubled teen know to sharpen stakes and drill holes in the shed roof to let in sunlight? Such details could have elevated this fledgling debut, but I’ll still keep an eye out for Sabatella’s future work as a director.