A flooded subterranean dungeon. Thick vines and roots crawl across the stone walls like somnolent snakes. Dim light flickers through a pall of fog. A terrified woman and a small child carefully wade through waist-deep water, alert for any threat.
Suddenly, one by one, bodies begin to bob to the surface around them, each clad in a sodden, diaphanous gown, and float, face down, in the murky water. The woman and the child recoil in horror. It’s a queasily surreal moment, slightly undercut when you notice that one of the corpses is gently kicking its legs to stay in place.
Over in the video village, the unwarranted movement is noticed. That’s a cut. Everyone returns to their marks.
We’re not in some gothic oubliette after all, but gathered around a disused swimming pool on the grounds of Sydney’s Gladesville Hospital, a heritage listed – and reputedly haunted – former mental asylum. For the past several weeks, it’s served as location and production offices for the dark fantasy film The School, the feature debut from writer and director Storm Ashwood.
In one glance you can see why they chose the place; with its monolithic stone buildings garlanded with Victorian crenelations and cornices, it must have saved the art department a fortune in set dressing.
“We were going ‘Where are we gonna build these sets? It’s gonna cost us a fortune!’” producer Blake Northfield tells us. “And then we got this joint. It’s the oldest lunatic asylum in Australia. It was built in 1823. It was the first that treated patients like they were mentally ill, but before that it was run by a family whose job was basically to hide them away from the public. There’s 1200 unmarked graves on this site that all seem to have occurred during the years that this family owned this place.”
That might seem a bit morbid, but when you’re trying to bring a complex and stylised fantasy world to the screen on a low budget, you have to take what breaks you can get. “When you’ve got your location and your production offices and your art department storage all in the one spot, that alone saves enough money so we don’t have to cut anything,” Northfield says.
First envisioned by Ashwood almost a decade ago, The School tells the story of a successful doctor, Amy Payne (Megan Drury), who is wracked with guilt over being unable to cure her deathly ill young son. With the boy in a coma, Amy finds herself sucked into a kind of netherworld – the echo of an old school, in the real world long burned down, which is inhabited by the shades of lost children. There she must not only try to find her own child’s spirit, but must contend with the embodiments of her own fear, guilt, and shame.
“When I read the script I immediately recognised the genre as a psychological fantasy horror,” Drury tells us as she sits in the makeup room between takes. “And I’ve always loved psychological horror and psychological thrillers. I love the metaphor that’s contained within those types of films. I really appreciated the quite beautiful study of grief and trauma and shame and guilt that was taking place throughout the story and throughout Amy’s journey, and that’s what drew me to it.”
Standing in her way is Zac, played by Home and Away‘s Will McDonald, the capricious and malevolent leader of the tribe of ghostly children. “He’s the one who draws Amy into this world,” McDonald explains. “He’s very much her antagonist. His role within this place, or I guess what he’s trying to achieve, is to punish Amy, because Zac’s childhood was, when he was alive, was to say the least, not pleasant, so he has developed a very virulent hatred of all things “parent”, all things adult, all things that are authoritative figures that are not himself.”
Thus, as a mother, Amy finds herself in a position not just to save her own kid, but possibly all the children who have been trapped in this kind of purgatory for up to a century. “So when a mum gets in, everyone goes ‘I remember this!’ So they’re conflicted – do they obey him, or do they obey mum?” Northfield says.
In what is the project’s most interesting conceit, the otherworld that is the school is dynamic, rather than static. The ghost children trapped here have developed their own society, with its own specific rules, customs and taboos. Dormitory walls are covered in graffiti that lays out Zac’s stern dictates to his subjects (“no laughter”), while in another room classroom furniture has bee piled high to create a kind of throne for the teen dictator. Rulers, sports gear and broken window panes have been fashioned into crude weapons, and the children adorn themselves with tribal warpaint, the designs differing according to their place in Zac’s hierarchy.
If some of these elements sound familiar, that’s deliberate – everyone we speak to references both Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies as touchstones. As Ashwood explains, “The story of Peter Pan was one of my favourite stories when I was a kid, so I suppose I put all these little elements into this horror film as it were, and here we are. I wanted a genre pic that I could afford to make, that had some personal thematic stuff that I wanted to apply about letting go and moving on, and I wanted to apply my own childhood fantasies behind the Peter Pan story. So, bringing all that together, we have The School.”
It was never an easy sell, though, and the project went through four different producers before Ashwood brought it to Northfield when he was working on the producer’s last film, the Australian horror movie Out of the Shadows, as a gaffer. Northfield had his doubts about backing an untried feature director, but a look at the short films Ashwood had made quickly changed his mind. “He did a short called Moth that was incredible, based on similar elements to this, and it was enough to see that, with this guy, not only was the script great, but you could tell by the shorts that he could pull it off.”
Northfield took the project to his producing partner, Jim Robison, and the project moved forward quickly as a co-production between Bronte Pictures and Lunar Pictures.
Ashwood is keen to stress that it’s not, strictly speaking a horror movie, being more akin to the dark fantasies by the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but does admit that elements of the film do draw inspiration from J-horror tropes. “If you look at elements like the scare tactics that the Japanese use for The Ring or The Grudge, Dark Water – I like the way they use those tactics and involve children.”
Northfield agrees, saying “They’re not your cliché horror films. You draw from them and go, ‘Okay, what would happen if you put that with this’ and mix them together. In this case, it’s been very successful. We’ve got one horrific creature that is our ‘hero” creature, The Hungry – she’s absolutely horrifying. And so putting her in the same space as the kids creates this very interesting dynamic.”
For all that, when talking to the cast and crew, what really comes across is how much faith they all have in Ashwood’s vision and the craft he brings to translating it onto the big screen.
“Storm is remarkable,” Drury says adamantly. “He’s built this incredible world in his mind, which of course everyone else has jumped on to actually build physically. He manages to maintain this incredible equilibrium, even when he’s freaking out inside. He’s a very calm communicator, he’s very present for you, which I love, I always have a lot of questions, I pay a lot of attention to detail, so we have very in-depth discussion about what each moment is and what each scene is and how it fits in to the full arc of the story. And he’s incredibly patient, he listens very well, he communicates very well, he has a very clear vision of what this world is, so he’s able to translate that when he’s communicating it to you.”
The question remains whether Ashwood’s vision will find a receptive audience in Australia, which is always a gamble, especially for genre films. The School, with its complex mythology, literary allusions, and psychological underpinnings, not to mention its stylised visual aesthetic, is like few other Australian genre efforts in memory. “I suppose it’s not very Australian,” Ashwood says self-deprecatingly. “As far as what we’re used to seeing, and I originally had trouble getting people to understand what I was trying to convey.”
As far as Northfield is concerned, though, that uniqueness is an asset. “For an Australian film, it’ll stand out.” he says. “For a film, it’ll stand out. The themes within are absolutely universal.”