‘Refuge’ Review: A Surface-Level Thriller that Looks Good but Falls Flat

Refuge is full of intriguing ideas that never reach their full potential.

Refuge was released on streaming in the United States on April 19, 2024.

Table of Contents

What is Refuge About?

Rick wears his burned mask in Refuge (2023).
Sometimes the mask Rick wears looks menacing, but other times it looks odd.

Refuge is a possession horror movie about an American soldier who brings something evil back home with him from his time in action. While deployed in Afghanistan, Sergeant Rick Pedroni (Aston McAuley) has a fateful encounter with a mysterious force hidden inside a cave. He is sent home, and his wife Kate (Sophie Simnett) and father (Jason Flemyng) are told that Rick is suffering from PTSD. But Kate starts to suspect that Rick’s silence and sudden bursts of aggression are supernatural in origin, so she turns to Ibrahim (Raza Jeffrey), the Imam of a local mosque, for help.

Refuge was directed by Renny Harlin. Harlin has a history of directing highly entertaining genre films including A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), and Devil’s Pass (2013). Renny Harlin is also directing the new The Strangers trilogy beginning with The Strangers: Chapter 1 (2024). Refuge was written by Ben Sztajnkrycer whose previous screenwriting includes the killer-bird movie Kaw (2006).

Refuge Review

Rick and Kate embrace in Refuge (2023).
The relationship between Rick and Kate is at the heart of Refuge.

Refuge isn’t bad. It’s perfectly passable entertainment. That isn’t a resounding endorsement for the film, but it is accurate for a movie this glaringly average.

Refuge does certain things very well. The one thing that should immediately be apparent when watching is how good the movie looks. The production design is excellent, and it is all lit extremely well. Even most of the darker scenes are lit in ways that aren’t necessarily realistic, but are visually interesting and a welcome change from some of the more drab and colorless trends in modern filmmaking. In that way, the visual style of Refuge is a bit of a throwback to the late-90s, early-2000s era of mid-budget horror.

Rick's mask shines in Refuge (2023).
Even the CGI effects are reminiscent of the late-90s and early-2000s, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but also isn’t a deal-breaker.

There is also a good story somewhere within Refuge. Telling a story about PTSD through the metaphor of possession is straightforward, yet it also has the potential to be effective. All the right elements are there. Prejudice, racism, mental health, and recovery are all touched on, and it’s all structured well within the story. So why isn’t Refuge anything more than just average?

The main problem is that Refuge never feels authentic. You’re always aware that you’re watching a movie rather than being immersed in a truly emotional story. The dialogue often comes across as stilted, and scenes appear obtrusively staged rather than naturally occurring. As mentioned above, the slightly stylized visuals are nice to look at, but when combined with the very stagey execution of the action, Refuge gives off a made-for-TV, Hallmark Channel vibe. Hallmark movies have their own charm, but it’s not really what comes to mind when thinking of a possession movie. In effect, Refuge is presented in a matter-of-fact way that competently delivers the story to the audience without much flair.

A man wearing a burlap mask in Refuge (2023).
Rick attends a group therapy session where the participants are encouraged to create masks that represent the feelings they have inside.

As for the horror, Refuge isn’t a terribly scary or unnerving film. The movie is really more of a supernatural thriller than a horror movie. There’s one scene in the first half of Refuge that attempts horror, but it is brief and surprisingly bland. The rest of the “horror” comes later when Rick’s possession begins affecting other soldiers suffering from PTSD. There are some interesting moments when Rick and his followers—all of who wear creepy masks—start forming a group. But again, it’s more visually interesting than it is emotionally impactful.

Raza Jaffrey as Ibrahim in Refuge (2023).
Ibrahim is phenomenally patient and giving when Rick and Kate show up in his life.

The cast is good though, especially Sophie Simnett as Rick’s wife Kate, and Raza Jaffrey as the Imam and potential exorcist Ibrahim. None of the characters in Refuge are particularly deep, but Kate and Ibrahim are interesting to watch thanks to the splendid efforts of Sophie Simnett and Raza Jaffrey. Unfortunately, most of the characters in Refuge are little more than stock characters who fulfill their roles within the plot in predictable ways. For instance, Ibrahim’s son Farid (Shervin Alenabi) is angry at the prejudices he suffers every day, but [spoiler] he eventually comes to an understanding with Rick’s father after an angry exchange earlier in the movie. It’s all very pleasant and expected in a surface-level kind of way, which is a decent description for the entirety of Refuge.

Who Will Enjoy Refuge?

Rick stares out of a car window in Refuge (2023).
Refuge earns a very slight recommendation.

Refuge is a movie with better ideas than execution. That’s sad to say, because Renny Harlin can deliver fantastic genre movies. It’s like Refuge could’ve used a re-write or two on the script, and more time spent on constructing its scenes. As it is, Refuge is a just-okay movie that feels like the equivalent of reading a mass-market paperback picked up on a whim at the grocery store; It’s not bad, but it’s mostly forgettable. Refuge is only recommended for people who are especially intrigued by the premise and who aren’t looking for anything particularly frightening or moving.

Further Reading

Meet The Author

Chris has a degree in film studies at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo, Japan. He is a renowned expert on horror cinema.