One of the most shockingly visceral horror films of all time.
Joshua. 2007. Directed by George Ratliff. Screenplay by David Gilbert & Ratliff.
Starring Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Celia Weston, Dallas Roberts, Michael McKean, Jacob Kogan, Nancy Giles, Linda Larkin, Alex Draper, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Ezra Barnes, Jodie Markell, Rufus Collins, Haviland Morris, & Tom Bloom. ATO Pictures.
Rated 14A. 106 minutes.
The creepy kid sub-genre (if that’s legitimately a thing) in horror is one that’s seen plenty of ripe material. Some of the classics dominate, such as The Omen and the lesser loved but awesome The Good Son featuring young Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood. Then there are others which aren’t as great, though still enjoyable, like Children of the Corn. What makes us so worried in general about the killer kids, the little psychopaths, young boys and girls capable of murder, manipulation, and so much more, is the idea of nature v. nurture. With any representation of evil, adult and child alike, it’s a question of whether innocence is real. If it is inherent in human beings automatically and evil becomes engrained in people throughout the course of their lives. Or if there’s no such thing as innocence, and at birth humans are part of a cosmic Russian Roulette, in which children can come out on the opposite shade of that spectrum.
Joshua examines such questions of innocence. Even after the credits start to roll and we’ve watched with dread those final moments, there are no blatant answers. It may seem like everything’s obvious. Although that’s certainly not the case if you look closely. Added to the finale and its ending there are several key moments which call into question what exactly has happened. People can say they’ve got a definitive answer, and they may offer quite a deal of evidence to that point, yet there will always be a hovering air of mystery. Considering these events, when you look back on the film as a whole you start to try piecing together various theories, moving back and forth between possibilities. Ultimately, this is a strength, as Joshua is highly likely to stick in your mind, days after seeing it, possibly longer. And after so much madness you’ll start to question whether evil really is nurtured all the time after all.
Maybe innocence is far too fleeting.
I love the natural feeling of the relationship between Brad and Abby (Sam Rockwell & Vera Farmiga). One of the biggest things about any drama, no matter what sort of genre boundaries it crosses, is that the character need to feel real. I don’t care what sort of story you’re telling, if the characters in your screenplay don’t connect with people emotionally on some level then there’s really no hope for anything else you’re attempting to do. While this movie is absolutely a (psychological)horror-thriller its main structure is an intense family drama. The foundation of which is always going to be real, honest characters. One example is early on when Brad joins Abby in bed – he’s trying to start sex, without being obnoxious, and his wife isn’t really ready yet, but he’s kissing her ass (literally), telling her how gorgeous she is, to the point of saying he loves how her armpits smell.
When the horror-thriller elements star to kick in hard there are obvious comparisons, and maybe homages, to similar films now considered classics. For instance, just Abby’s hair alone and later her pale complexion will have most people thinking of Rosemary’s Baby. As Joshua (Jacob Kogan) further manipulates his parents he becomes reminiscent of an even more actively involved Damien Thorn.
One of the eeriest scenes comes when the dog dies. The way Joshua mimics his father begins to show us how the boy might possibly be a psychopath. We know already there’s something not quite right, but this is a spooky moment. Even Brad starts to get a peek into the personality of his son, and though he soon forgets mostly about it this is a big turning point. As an audience, we’re gradually privy to more of his creepy behaviour that leads us farther and deeper into the boy’s psychopathy.
Rockwell is a fantastic actor. He does well with a variety of characters, and this is no different. The character of Brad is complex. He’s a very loving, understanding husband, and all at once a man with needs, both emotional and physical. Later on, he becomes a sort of vilified father near the end. So as an actor Rockwell has tons with which he can work. He’s easy to relate with watching him deteriorate, and this is probably why it’s all so effective. We feel for him all the way. Alongside him is Farmiga, another awesome talent. She is always watchable, even in movies where there’s nothing too exciting going on. Here, she’s saddled with playing a role similar to the ones played by Mia Farrow and Lee Remick, only this is a much more realistic portrayal of a woman driven to madness by pregnancy and/or motherhood. It isn’t easy to portray an honest character like this, but Farmiga gives us the good and bad of a new mother, one that’s already experienced the exact same thing not even a decade before. Having seen several women go through that new life as a mother, including the rocky beginnings, I find Farmiga’s performance to be extremely on point. And when Joshua further drives his mother into psychological ruin there are some good scenes between Farmiga and Rockwell, where they give us a devastating look at a corroding marriage.
The best scene of all is the last one in the park, after Brad finally snaps. Everything about it is incredibly well executed. Love the score that accompanies the moment, very ominous and psycho-thriller-esque. But just the way Rockwell goes mental, fighting the men around him, it’s so intensely emotional. The camera draws back, panning out and giving us this almost auditorium-like view of the confrontation. Overall, a wonderful sequence.
This is a 4-star film that I’d put up at the top of the pantheon of creepy kid sub-genre. Of course Joshua doesn’t come along with any of the outright bloody horror many of its counterparts boast. Nonetheless, it is horrific. A psychological thriller with enough viciousness to hold the attention of most. There are good performances, however, the writing is what does most of the work. Not every creepy kid flick has much innovative about its story. What Joshua doesn’t attain in its few missteps it gains back in an overall willingness to step outside the usual expectancies of the sub-genre and it makes up by subverting those ideas, giving us something altogether creepy and slightly original. The film avoids cliche at many turns simply due to the fact it opts for a plot that doesn’t dive into the supernatural. Everything is much too real and impressively believable.
Dig in, you’ll find a treat especially if creepy kids get to you. This is one boy I won’t soon forget.
Don’t Go In The House. 1979. Directed by Joseph Ellison. Screenplay by Ellison, Ellen Hammill, & Joe Masefield.
Starring Dan Grimaldi, Charles Bonet, Bill Ricci, Robert Osth, Dennis M. Hunter, John Hedberg, Ruth Dardick, Johanna Brushay, Darcy Shean, Mary Ann Chinn, & Lois Verkruepse. Turbine Films Inc.
Rated R. 82 minutes.
Still banned in certain countries to this day, Don’t Go In The House was filmed in 1979 then released the following year to become one of the infamous Video Nasties. It ended up on the original list, though managed to avoid prosecution after certain cuts were made and the film saw a release in ’87. And while there’s a certain part of me which understands why some might find themselves horrified by this movie, it isn’t all shock and awe. Of course, for a movie about a man who burns women to death in his basement with a flame thrower it’s natural there are gruesome scenes. The entire concept and the plot is truly horrifying, a reason why this film has endured in the hearts of genre fans for years. Quentin Tarantino for one is a huge fan of the film having played it at his film festival several times, as well as mentioning the movie had an impact on him when he first saw it. Because for a slasher horror with a gimmick this doesn’t back down. It both delivers the goods any slasher demands, serving up lots of the sub-genre killing we’d expect, and also provides a decent enough view into the lead character, whose complex psychology brings about a series of destructive consequences that eventually lead to a violent catharsis. Underneath its meager
slashburn-and-kill premise, Don’t Go In The House looks at a man damaged by the psychopathy of his mother, and also encapsulates the end of a decade into the beginning of another with the ’70s fading in the rear-view while 1980 reared its head.
Working at an incinerator, Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi) witnesses a man almost burn to death in front of him. Freezing, unable to help, he’s ostracized by his boss. A co-worker named Bobby (Robert Osth) befriends him to try and make sure Donny doesn’t blame himself for anything. But while Bobby tries to be Donny’s buddy, the latter is busy out doing other things. Or well, he stays at home a lot. Because down in his basement Danny decided to build a special room. It’s lined with steel sheeting. In the middle hangs a chain. And at night Danny brings women home, chains them in his little room, then sets them on fire with a flamethrower.
See Danny has issues with his mother – the one sitting dead and dried up in his house, the one he still talks to casually, every day. The more women he takes home and burns to death, the crazier he gets. And going to the disco with Bobby just can’t seem to get him out of the habit.
For a time without the elaborate special effects of today, Ellison does a good job in ’79 making directorial choices so as to not have to focus on anything that might look less than stellar. Sure, it still looks like a film out of the late ’70s, in both good and bad ways. But the burnings especially are carried out with precision to make the scenes more effective, rather than having them come off as disingenuous, making things look terrible and campy, in the wrong sense.
There’s an interesting change in the film where we go from disco music to rock. This is ultimately the shift from the ’70s to the ’80s. Granted, there was plenty electronic music and other New Wave stuff to come from the 1980s, but what it means is the death of disco, a shift – even if only part of the way – back towards rock n’ roll again. A new era begins, the disco inferno burning out with Donny’s flamethrower. Finally, it is also the burning in effigy of his mother. Naturally those are what his victims stand in for, the memory of her, the things she did to him as a boy. Yet further than that the shift from disco music Donny played earlier to the rock n’ roll he falls asleep to, before having hallucinations of his mother and burned corpses, is another symbolic gesture of his departure from dear old mom. Similar to Norman Bates, this psycho has himself a mommy problem. Obvious enough, but the script and the direction together make this an impressive character study of a man driven to sick compulsions all due to the relationship he had with an abusive, domineering mother.
The film’s brutality is astounding. And yet there’s only truly graphic scene throughout the entirety, which is the first time Donny tries out his little fire room, a.k.a the oven, as I call it. We get what would come after this as the obligatory 1980s slasher horror nudity, but then comes the savagery when he burns the woman in his room alive. Even while it’s graphic, the editing and Ellison’s choices as director make the whole burning sequence disturbingly memorable without any gore. And like I mentioned the effects come off well because of this effort. Even though there’s plenty more to creep us out the movie’s violent horror elements hinge on this kill. Upon revisiting this one, a major reason why it left an impression on me is because for what’s technically a slasher sub-genre flick, Ellison’s movie drums up tons of terror with only one actual graphic murder. Usually these types of horrors are based on a body count. Instead of going with what would become a major trend in the ’80s, Ellison kicks off an important decade for the genre with one of the most atypical and enjoyable slasher movies out there.
For me, this is one of those movies that only gets better every time I see it. Almost every time I forget about how eerie the dream sequences are, then they hit me like a ton of bricks. Don’t Go In The House has more to it than meets the eye. It presents as another Don’t-titled generic horror that’s ready to offer up all the same trappings of most every film in the sub-genre. Director-writer Joseph Ellison went another way, studying the character of a fragile young man that turned into an adult killer while also ushering one decade out and saying hello to the next one.
This little flick has the goods and is all too often passed over as a lesser offering in horror. I say that is nonsense. Give this a chance, look at it closer. But mostly, let it wash over you, from the disco to the dark subject matter and the fire – oh, the fire! It’s all glorious.
Snowtown. 2011. Directed by Justin Kurzel. Screenplay by Shaun Grant. Based on books by Debi Marshall & Andrew McGarry.
Starring Lucas Pittaway, Bob Adriaens, Louise Harris, Frank Cwiertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Richard Green, Aaron Viergever, & Daniel Henshall. The South Australian Film Corporation/Carver Films/Screen Australia/Warp Films Australia.
Rated R. 119 minutes.
Before his wonderfully grim and atmospheric Macbeth adaptation, director Justin Kurzel first wowed me with Snowtown. This is a film dedicated to telling an awful, tragic story, and in the most impressive way possible. Aesthetically, you’ll be hard pressed to find such an intense look at the horrific crimes of a real life serial killer as this movie.
Using the real life killings and crime spree of infamous Australian criminal John Bunting, Snowtown examines how the lower class and the disadvantaged are in danger of being prey for emotional/sexual predators, as well as those masquerading in the costume of saviours. When Bunting came into contact with James Vlassakis and his mother, as well her other children, he did so under the guise of being a protector. From there, the group which began surrounding them all became much like a cult of personality, everyone following Bunting as he launched a self-imposed campaign of murder and torture against paedophiles and abusers, some confirmed, others only suspected. Bunting often called his killings “playing”, as well as the fact he and accomplice Robert Wagner ritually played the song “Selling the Drama” by the band Live as they murdered, tortured, and cut people into pieces. While this movie definitely contains graphic, explicit material, Kurzel does an amazing job straddling the line of decency. With regards to movies focused on actual serial killers directors and writers can run the danger of being insensitive, being too overtly nasty, and just generally risk coming off as disrespectful. However, for all its brutality and dark subject matter, Snowtown remains a disturbingly raw and honest look at one of the most terrible men to have ever walked the streets of Australia, or anywhere else for that matter.
There are so many things at play in this film. Underrated Australian actor Daniel Henshall brings John Bunting to life in an especially dangerous manner. He’s not a big, huge man, but even in his quietest moments there’s this simmering power right below this soft and smiley exterior. It isn’t evident right away. As the movie progresses, you start to understand there’s something very wrong with him. Because at first he’s really a white knight for Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway). Though we know who John Bunting is, or most of us do coming to the film, there’s still a questionable aspect to his character here. He’s doing what a lot of people say they’d do to paedophiles, rapists. Along the line things start to become clearer, and the fact Bunting is stealing welfare cheques, prescriptions, et cetera, is a little less knight in shining armour. Not just that we see how reckless the judge, jury, executioner routine becomes, as John starts to need less and less proof. Furthermore, he and his pal Robert start to close ranks. Bit by bit they start to kill people closer to home. And all the while there are times you’ve really got to question your own morality, whether some of these people deserved death. Likely if you’re a real good person, there won’t be anything relatable about Bunting or his crimes. I don’t identify with him whatsoever. But seeing some of the troubles of these lower class families it makes you wonder if getting some deviants off the streets wasn’t the right thing. Until things go much, much too far. There’s one murder in particular that is devastating. Then you can see Bunting exactly for the monster he is. What once was the disguise of a vigilante is then revealed to be plain and simple psychopathy.
What’s incredibly interesting is the relationship between Bunting and Jamie. After we’ve seen the abuse Jamie’s suffered at the hands of his mother’s old boyfriend, and even his own stepbrother, there’s a scene where they’re eating supper together. John casually asks Jamie if he likes “being fucked“, and you can see the young man’s surprise at hearing it so openly. After that he slowly reels Jamie into his grasp. Even to his mother, Jamie says not to fuck up her relationship with John after they’ve had a big argument. He gets indoctrinated gradually. It doesn’t matter that his own friend gets murdered, he goes along. Jamie then finds himself along for a brutal, dark ride. Because in the end, it’s all about the socioeconomic realities of Jamie and his life as a disadvantaged young man, stuck in housing projects, forever doomed to be part of the lower class without any real hope going forward. Along comes Bunting, who knows how to pull a fast one – even if by murder – and figures out ways to scam the system. Sadly, for Jamie, there is nothing else in the way of hope. So inadvertently, after everything he’s seen Bunting do, after his own personal heartache, Jamie becomes this pawn in a series of murders.
There are some gorgeously poignant scenes throughout the screenplay, which Kurzel brings to life. There’s one scene that felt to epitomize Jamie’s situation – he sits near the fire at a big party outside, he just watches as everyone else jumps around, dancing, having fun, and you can really feel the weight of everything bearing down upon him. Another perfectly captured moment is when John’s got Jamie out posing as a dead man so they can get an extra cheque from the government; John sits just behind the young man, peeking out around him, and it’s just about the most dead-on image of Bunting that you can find. He is the mastermind behind all their misery.
The cinematography is very natural. I love the style of directing that Kurzel uses herebecause we really start to feel a part of this world. As disgustingly gritty as it is, the life of John Bunting and his associates feels all too real. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective Season 1, Top of the Lake, Lore) is someone whose work I’ve enjoyed over the past handful of years, ever since I first got the chance to see Animal Kingdom. He’s able to make things feel like they’re not simply blocked and set in front of a camera. There’s a wonderful chaos and frenetic feel to his lens, yet contained chaos. His close focus on the characters and their actions take us into their lives. In the slow burning moments, which are plenty, the story moves along so well because Arkapaw allows us to feel directly in every last moment, as opposed to stuck outside looking at perfect frames constantly. Things don’t always need to be steady and centered and composed like an equation. Arkapaw’s camera helps us connect, even if that’s a difficult, horrifying task.
Even better, director Justin’s younger brother Jed is an amazing composer, and he lends his talents to Snowtown with a beautiful score to underpin all the macabre events of its story. His music is this haunting soundtrack, one that makes strange moments in the screenplay feel like dreams. And even with all the realism of the camerawork there are still times where all the various pieces out of the score almost give off a surreal atmosphere.
There were a couple things I wish were more clear in the screenplay. A few things involving John Bunting’s character I never quite fully grasped that felt a little too cryptic. But overall, Snowtown is one of the greatest films concerning real life crime I’ve seen. It is so brutally, openly honest about its subject matter, and its main subject in Bunting. Whereas some many find it an endurance test at points because of its few graphic bits, this is much more a psychological crime film than horror. At the same time, it is most certainly a terrifying piece of cinema. Both Lucas Pittaway and Daniel Henshall give spectacular performances that make the characters of Jamie Vlassakis and John Bunting feel totally real. The look and feel of the film as a whole makes its plot that much more effective. Also, Kurzel used many locals who had never acted, most from a rough location called Davoren Park (around where many of the murders took place), which further lends authenticity to the whole production; aside from Henshall and Richard Green, everyone else was pretty much picked up from that area. Although a few reviews I’ve seen seem to toss this off as a bunch of boring, slow moving cinema with a shock or two and real life crime as its basis, for me Snowtown is a frank and chilling tale of how the lower echelons of society are susceptible to dangerous influence, and they are at much more risk than alcoholism, getting diabetes, heart disease, any of the normal things you’d hear. Bunting was pretty much evil incarnate. He struck at the weak and the economically crippled, the easier his target the better. Kurzel manages to make an interesting and suspenseful journey out of some of the most shocking murders in Australian history.