I love horror flicks, have done so since my parents took me to see "Psycho" at the Preston Drive-In Movies in 1962. Getting your hair stood on end is as good as a roller-coaster ride. I was pissed off when film critics across the spectrum gave the "Hostel" films zero stars, calling them torture porn, when they did for me what they were expected to, made me shit my pants in terror and then flee from the theatre relieved that the lead actor had escaped in the end.
I've been going to opening weekend big-screen horror movie releases all my life, am addicted to having my blood curdled, my adrenalin rushed, my guts dropped and my brain warped, screaming in unison with an enthusiastic audience, as if in group catharsis, it's one of the great pleasures of being a cinephile. One particular cinema was a key site of my childhood adventure fantasies and nightmare horror rides, the Forum in Flinders Street, Melbourne. I was lured into that Arabian Nights palace like a kid following the Pied Piper into Wonderland to be scarified by celluloid creepies such as "The Birds" and "Dinosaurus". It was at the Forum, post "Psycho", that I relished Willian Castle's shock shlock, "Homicidal", where he promised such terror as to need an ambulance at the end of the show to attend to the faint-hearted, with the female serial killer finally revealed as a man in drag, a bit of a mind-blower to my post-puberty sexual angst.
Forty-five years later, in 2008, I again attended the fantastical Forum Cinema for the Melbourne International Film Festival and I'm pleased to say I got my flesh crawled all over again, this time by, surprise, surprise, a new Australian horror flick called "Acolytes" directed by Jon Hewitt. Promoted as a "teen chiller", it's "an urban Gothic tale about three Queensland teenagers who blackmail a local serial killer into dispatching an ex-con they hate." There's not much these days that can scare us, except for war, famine and disease, the old horror stand-bys like aliens, disfigured monsters, vampires and werewolves being mostly unbelievable and worn-out cliches, but the modern plague of serial killers is something that still resonates with terror, and Jon Hewitt's movie hits the chill spot with the concept that the killer(s) can be anyone amongst us, our ordinary next door neighbour in bland, uneventful suburbia.
The refreshing thing about "Acolytes" is it's stark realism, the contrasts of light and dark giving it a tabloid photographic edge, making it more believable, a return to the realism of a classic like "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer", and eschewing the over-blown, fantastic visions of generic killer-flicks like "Nightmare on Elm Street", "The Cell" and "Saw", entertainingly hallucinatory tho they be but not believable. As if Larry Clark and Gus van Sant did a version of "Disturbia", the raw, fresh, untrained acting of the teenagers give "Acolytes" a naturalistic feel, I empathised with their vulnerability and went on their terrifying journey with them instead of distancing myself watching stars do their schtick. "Acolytes" gives a nod to the history of "serial killer chillers", the butterfly symbolism and dungeon of "Silence of the Lambs", the terror-run thru the forest of "Kiss the Girls" and the innocent tourists as victims of "Wolf Creek", "Hostel" and "Touristas", but arriving at a unique take on what is itself getting to be a much worked over genre, getting squeezed dry of ideas, ( to name a few of the latest,"Taking Lives", "Untraceable" and best of them all, "Funny Games".)
"Acolytes" is unique because it's very Australian in it's setting and larrikan characters. The movie opens with a glorious pan of a Queensland landscape, then juxtaposes it with a zoom into the uniformity of an urban housing estate, suggesting the theme of nature vs. nurture that lies behind much psychological hand-wringing on the subject of serial killers. The high-school teenagers, their hated ex-con foe and the killer himself are all laconic, irreverant, hard-arsed suburbanites you could meet in any Aussie pub or milk bar. And the plot has a few twists and surprises that lift it out of the hum-drum to give you the willies when thought out, the nice, normal family being vicious, cold killers just one of the nasty implications.
Joel Edgerton is soooo scary playing an Ivan Milat-like killer with moustache and aviator sun-glasses but even more ordinary and unprepossessing in his looks, cold, distant but almost handsome in his white collar and tie, a family man who holds down a job, supports a wife and kid and lives in a nice white, antiseptic house in suburbia, the type of killer that will never be caught, because he has no history of deviance, does'nt have the signifying mask or disfigured face like Jason or Freddy Kreuger and does'nt dress weird like the Joker. All those people gone missing while hitching on the north coast of N.S.W. were possibly picked up by this type of killer. And the idea that young, wayward impressionables can be groomed to carry on a tradition of killing strangers as if it's some kind of callous philosophical school of existentialism had me shivering in horror. The nightmare that suburbia can become, of boring, restless lives that seek out murder to spice up the banality as depicted in "Acolytes" scared the shit out of me.
I only hope that "Acolytes" can get the audience it's made for, teenage thrill-seekers, as quirky originals like this deserve support by the Australian movie-going public, too many good Aussie thrillers get ignored and thus fail at the box office because big, splashy junk-food Hollywood fare offers a slicker thrill. Shlock like "Scream 3" compared to "Acolytes" is a bit like a Big Mac as opposed to a lamb roast, which one is more satisfying? "Acolytes" in my mind is more scary because it depicts the reality of killers in our midst more naturalistically. And Jon Hewitt is to be congratulated for pulling off a tough artistic assignment, creating unique Aussie cinematic horror in the wake of "Wolf Creek".
Maybe the movie's distributors should emulate William Castle's outrageous publicity campaigns to get teenage bums on seats by declaring nobody is allowed to enter or leave the cinema for the last revealing, terrifying seven minutes, there will be guards on the doors looking like Ivan Milat and, at risk of heart attack, the audience will be forced to watch unprotected the denouement of "Acolytes" in all it's terrifying, gory glory.