While the likes of George Miller and Baz Luhrmann are (justifiably) feted and celebrated at award ceremonies, and hordes of other Australian filmmakers find success directing episodes for high-quality television productions, there is a small, highly industrious group of Australian filmmakers who work on the fringes, and on their own terms. Running on low budgets achieved largely outside of the traditional funding routes, the mighty likes of Alkinos Tsilimdidos, John V. Soto, Chris Sun, Matthew Holmes, Jon Hewitt and many, many others are out there making unconventional films, often in the genre fields of horror and action, and they’re going largely unsung. The wholly uncompromising Steven Kastrissios is another member of this slightly outlaw crew.
Though a distinctly Australian work, Steven Kastrissios’ 2008 debut film The Horseman was birthed from the same pain that drove the 1979 American cult classic Hardcore. When George C. Scott screams, “Turn it off, turn it off, turn it off!”, there’s no underestimating his trauma. The miserable wretch has just witnessed his missing daughter in a porn film, while the film’s director is enjoying every second of it. Paul Schrader’s Hardcore raised as much ire as it did heart beats, and writer/director/producer Steven Kastrissios walked similar territory with his debut. There are obvious parallels between Schrader’s Hardcore and The Horseman (a young woman has also gone missing, and her father sees her smacked out “performance” in a porn film), but with one notable difference: Kastrissios’ anti-hero isn’t taking things sitting down. So begins a balls-out home-grown revenge flick that skilfully mixes the emotional wallop of Hardcore with the gruesome slasher sensibilities of Saw. In short, it’s hard going.
The critical response, not surprisingly, was divided. “We’ve had really good reviews, although more conservative newspaper critics couldn’t get past the violence,” says Kastrissios. “That said, the last hardcore revenge film that I can think of that was made here was Mad Max, and that was thirty years ago.”
The Horseman was filmed in Queensland with relative newcomer Peter Marshall in his first lead role. Everything hinges on his gut-raw performance, which he delivers with astounding credibility. He stars as Christian, a grieving father trying to make sense of the suspicious death of his daughter. He takes a road trip and strikes up an awkward friendship with Alice (Caroline Marohasy), a runaway who gets caught in the middle of his quest. Chanting the mantra “an eye for an eye”, The Horseman quickly descends into the kind of horror that befalls innocents in uncertain places. “Seeing normal characters that anyone can relate to, going through these horrific circumstances, makes you more sympathetic to where Christian’s journey goes,” Kastrissios told FilmInk upon the film’s release.
The path that he has taken is well trodden, though writer Kastrissios purposefully takes a detour. “Revenge has always interested me. Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes was inspiring, although it’s a very different, arthouse kind of film. It took an idea that’s been done a thousand times, but did something different with it. So I thought, ‘Yeah, I should do an all out revenge film and get it completely out of my system!’ But I wanted it to be less Charles Bronson, and more Paul Schrader, if you like,” he said with a laugh. “It suited the low budget nature of what we were trying to do as well.”
Where this steps outside the familiar line of blood-soaked psychopaths wreaking havoc in outback Australia is in the central character of Christian. He’s not – at least not to begin with – a psychopath. It’s true that, twisted by grief, he leaves a long, gory line of mutilation in his wake, but it’s not entirely difficult to understand why. He’s a dad, and these apathetic, self-serving men were responsible for his daughter’s death. Therein lies The Horseman’s key point of difference: this is a morality tale with an unusually high mortality rate. It is also the most difficult challenge that Kastrissios set himself.
Genre films are ready-made for genre audiences – who did he have in mind to watch an angry dad knock off some piss-weak scum? “I like big, silly genre concepts,” Kastrissios replied. “Spaceships, large breasted women, machine guns, chainsaws – then grounding it in reality. But not so realistic that it’s boring. For the most part, filmmakers working in this area celebrate the genre, but I wanted to take a seventies approach almost. Namely an approach where the drama comes first, and the action comes second. I also wanted to make a comment on pornography. The porn industry has become very disrespectful to women – stuffing heads in toilets while doing it and so on. It’s less and less about normal sex. I worked in an office where a colleague would share porn scenes that he’d found online. According to him, the more messed up, the better it was. Normal porn’s fine, but there was something very wrong about that.”
It formed the dramatic heart of The Horseman, which won a small group of fans when it screened at the Melbourne and Brisbane Film Festivals, and then at SXSW and the Cannes Market (all of which has led to international deals), before quietly making its way into local cinemas. “It took a long time to get cinemas interested in a little Aussie film that doesn’t have big stars in it,” Kastrissios told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “We’ve had enthusiastic responses from all around the world, and you’d hope for the same here. But cinemas are not so keen on ultra-violent, low budget movies when they can screen Amelie or The Wrestler,” Kastrissios added with a knowing sigh.
While the low budget of The Horseman prompted all manner of challenges for Steven Kastrissios, as did getting it into cinemas, the director climbed an even bigger and more precarious cinematic hill with his second film. Released in 2017, the dense, moody supernatural horror film Bloodlands was filmed in Albania, in Albanian, and with an Albanian cast and crew. Despite never having been to Albania before, Kastrissios expertly tapped into the country’s rich mythology to create something truly original and wholly unusual. An Australian/Albanian co-production starring Albanian actors, the film wades into the bleak territory of historical family feuds, and then layers in witchcraft and the supernatural.
“I took my time writing many spec scripts for various projects, but I didn’t chase any of them particularly hard,” Kastrissios explained to Culture Projections in 2017, “and then I got really itchy to shoot something, so when I heard about the blood feuds and Albania as a country, I pulled the trigger. I’d had lots of ideas over the years of how to approach another micro-budget production, with an even smaller production than The Horseman. And on my next attempt at low budget filmmaking, I wanted to go even leaner again. I think keeping an ultra-light footprint as a film crew allows much more freedom, and with all the great tools we have now in both practical camera, lighting and grip gear and digital post tools that are affordable and easy to use, we have no excuses left if we really want to make something.”
Though he hasn’t made a film since 2017’s wonderfully atmospheric Bloodlands, we know that this kind of drive and work ethic will see the cruelly unsung Steve Kastrissios back in cinemas soon, with another bold, striking work.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Talya Lavie, Michael Rowe, Rebecca Cremona, Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.