A young couple on a road trip, Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer), run afoul of two opportunistic back-block predators, German (Aaron Pederson) and Chook (Aaron Glenane), in Killing Ground, an assured survival horror from debut feature director, Damien Power.
Killing Ground is the latest in a long tradition of Aussie “don’t go into the bush” terror tales; Wolf Creek is only the latest, most visible example, but Power is savvy enough to draw influences from deeper cuts, such as 1978’s Long Weekend. While the two Aarons provide the most immediate, unnerving threat to our wayward city couple, the setting itself is also a villain. This is a classic Bad Place narrative. We’re casually informed at one point that the isolated camping ground where Power sets his horrors is the site of of an Aboriginal massacre, and it’s no accident that our lead antagonist is played by the Indigenous actor Pedersen (Mystery Road) in an incredibly menacing turn. A sense of foreboding is established early on in the proceedings that never lets up, only growing inexorably heavier and more agonising as the inevitable atrocities loom nearer.
The sense of terror is heightened considerably when the film makes the bold choice of splitting its narrative, jumping back in time to explore the fates of an earlier set of victims once Ian and Sam discover an abandoned family tent at their remote campsite. It’s a clever conceit, subverting the usual straight-forward plot construction of the survival horror genre.
It also ups the body count significantly. Power doesn’t shy away from confronting and, at times, genuinely upsetting imagery, although when it comes to actual depiction of brutality and assault he knows when to let viewers draw their own conclusions from what is implied onscreen. There’s a stark, harsh matter-of-factness to the violence we see; the film doesn’t bother with exotic weaponry or elaborate, ritualised tortures, instead reminding us that a cruel man armed with a rifle is terrifying enough. It’s the plausibility of the scenario that chills; add to that an element of child endangerment (a toddler is thrown into the mix at one point, and the film milks the poor mite’s terrible vulnerability for all its worth) and there are times when Killing Ground is almost unbearable.
In that good way, of course. Horror fans are in for an absolute treat here; Power and his team understand the conventions of their genre and know exactly when to subvert them and when to double down. Killing Ground might lack an iconic figure like Mick Taylor around which a real cult audience could form, but it’s the real deal; a taut and torturous journey into darkness.
Shot in one continuous single take, Watch the Sunset tells the story of a man whose family comes under threat when his violent criminal past finally catches up with him. We caught up with co-star and co-director, Tristan Barr.
Following the death of his mother, 13 year-old Fin (Ed Oxenbould) has retreated into a fantasy world of butterflies and other insects. Meanwhile his father Al (Ewen Leslie) drowns his sorrows in a sea of one-night stands and ill-advised short-term relationships. When Evelyn (Melissa George) moves into the neighbourhood to set up a new florist, she becomes the object of affection for both Fin and Al – and ultimately brings their own bitter conflict to the surface.
The Butterfly Tree is a new Australian drama, marking the feature debut of director Priscilla Cameron. It is a bold and promising work, rich in imagery and led by uniformly strong performances. The visuals are the most arresting aspect of the film, grabbing the eye with a bold use of colour and occasional sequences of magical realism. Fin’s dream world is rendered very effectively with a combination of live-action and animation. Many directors seem afraid of using colour. Cameron is absolutely not one of them, and despite its limited budget this is one of the most eye-catching and beautiful Australian films in in some time.
The film’s narrative has a pleasing intimacy to it, effectively working as a four-hander. As Fin, Ed Oxenbould delivers a very strong performance. He expresses the most awkward sort of teenage sexuality and frustration, as well as a badly buried grief and rage over his mother’s death. Fin undeniably makes very poor choices over the course of the film, but it is Oxenbould’s acting that ensures he remains sympathetic and ultimately very easy to identify with.
Melissa George gives her career-best as Evelyn, who seems almost an unrealistic romantic fantasy at first before the film digs a little deeper and reveals the real person underneath the surface. She is a particularly well-crafted character, and George is equally strong in both the romantic and the more grounded scenes. Her character grows in importance as the film develops, which is a very good thing. She may start as the pointy-end of an odd love triangle, but by the film’s conclusion she absolutely has her own central role.
The cast is rounded out by Ewen Leslie, one of Australia’s most reliable and watchable actors, and Sophie Lowe, who plays Shelley: Al’s latest and most inappropriate girlfriend so far. In many respects Lowe is burdened with a stereotypical character – the evil ex-girlfriend – but thankfully Cameron does provide her with a few key moments in which a more rounded and believable character emerges. For his own part Leslie is excellent, and like Oxenbould develops an identifiable and sympathetic character despite his own poor choices and behaviour.
If there is a key drawback to the film it is that the screenplay relies a little too heavily on well-worn territory, with plot elements that have been run over and over again in countless previous dramas. The treatment of those elements is rarely short of excellent, however they do create a slightly unwelcome familiarity as the film goes on. In the end it is not the story that viewers are likely to remember: instead it will be the strong performances, and particularly the engaging and memorable visual images. This film may be narratively unadventurous, but it is aesthetically wonderful.