Snowtown, Adelaide, Australia; a spot on the map, a blink and you’ll miss it kind of town. The sort of place where not much happens, but on the 20th May 1999 this small sleepy village would have its reputation changed forever when local Police walked into a disused bank vault and uncovered unspeakable horrors; horrors that would change the face of Snowtown and Australia. What they found inside would soon become known as “The Bodies in the Barrels” case, where once the full details emerged would horrify an entire country, and became the basis of a startling feature film debut from filmmaker Justin Kurzel.
Australia has a bloody history of creating movies that deal with horror and the dark side of cinema. From the Ozploitation boom of the 80s with such genre films as Road Games, Razorback, and numerous sequels to The Howling, to more current fare such as Wolf Creek, Dying Breed, and The Loved Ones. Now comes along Snowtown, a confronting and harrowing portrait of innocence lost and the evil manipulation and destruction of an entire community at the hands of a true psychopath.
What makes Snowtown such a frightening piece of cinema is that everything on display is so genuine. For a moment, you actually forget you’re watching a movie and instead think you’ve sat down to take in a grotesque documentary. Filming took place under a veil of secrecy in the exact same locations where the real life murders took place, and locals were used to pad out the cast. This authenticity drags the viewer in by the throat and never lets them go. Salisbury North is an area of the city of Adelaide that you wouldn’t want to visit let alone live there. Housing project hHHell coupled with high unemployment, its suburban fringe dweller residents live their lives in front of poker machines, eating cheap take away, and watching junk TV; just letting their lives rot away. It’s in this environment in which paedophiles go about their grimy business and in which a man manages to twist and corrupt the vulnerable into vicious killers.
Jamie Vlassakis is one of these unfortunate citizens, who lives with his mother, his brother, and half-brother; who sodomizes Jamie regularly. Vlassakis’s mother is friends with a local man who she gets to babysit for her, and he abuses her three young boys. Through a local transvestite, Barry Lane, this man’s actions are uncovered, and the charismatic John Bunting soon runs him out of the neighbourhood. Bunting and his friend Robert Wagner, who happens to be in a homosexual relationship with Lane, soon take it upon themselves to rid their neighbourhood of people who they perceive to be gay or child molesters, all with scarce evidence or just none at all.
Soon enough, locals, friends, and even family members start “moving interstate”. Unknown to everyone, those who have “moved interstate” have been buried in the backyard, or are rotting in the shed in barrels filled with acid. Young Jamie, who has taken a shine to Bunting, seeing him as somewhat of a father figure (Bunting is in a relationship with his mother), is slowly drawn into his and Wagner’s murderous world, and begins to take part in the torture and deaths of several people, including Vlassakis’s own half-brother and stepbrother. It was Jamie turning Crown Witness, which finally put an end to the carnage perpetrated by Bunting, Wagner, and a third man, Mark Haydon. Haydon’s wife unfortunately became one the victims.
What these men did is nothing short of unspeakable; the methods they used to torture their 12 victims to death are sadistic and cruel, and thankfully, the audience is spared the full extent of their crimes. As the movie is shown from the point of view of Jamie, we see what he sees, so director Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant slowly and subtly feed us titbits, and it is up to us to piece together the events to work out the sheer horror of what is going on. As Vlassakis becomes more aware so do we, until we find ourselves just like him – fully immersed in the spree. This approach adopted by the filmmakers makes the film work better and the tension slowly cranks up to an unbearable level. A gore fest this is not, and what makes the events even more shocking is that they evolve in such a banal manner.
Horror fans will notice strong similarities with another movie based on a real life serial killer, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Like Henry Lee and his partner in crime, Otis, Bunting and his cohorts kill out of the need to do something; they are bored – the death of the innocent that makes these monsters feel alive. Victims are chosen while Bunting and Co are eating dinner and driving around the streets, and motives and reasons are discussed in the same way someone would talk about making a cake or deciding what film to watch. Because of the material, the number of victims and the methods used to dispatch them, Snowtown could have easily been a Saw-esque torture porn feast, but instead we get a slow burn descent into a world that thankfully most of us will never encounter.
Daniel Henshall and Lucas Pittaway are absolute revelations as John Bunting and Jamie Vlassakis respectively. The former, at first appears to be someone who you could like, the typical man next door, the guy who would stop you in the street and ask how your day is, but underneath the façade lurks a cold and calculating demon whose hatred for his fellow man knows no bounds. Henshall brings these conflicting personalities to vivid life like a true professional, much like fellow Aussie Eric Bana, who received great reviews for his portrayal of Chopper Reid, he doesn’t just play John Bunting but completely becomes the man – this startling performance truly captivates the audience. The same can be said for Pittaway, the 18 year old who failed drama at high school, but has turned in a powerhouse portrayal of an abused child who becomes the abuser. These two men deserve all the praise that comes their way for inhabiting the skin of two very different but damaged people. For many other actors, playing these people would not have been easy, but Daniel Henshall and Lucas Pittaway pull it off effortlessly.
Snowtown was recently in competition for the Critics Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival; met with rave reviews it won a special award. That’s because it’s a special film, one of the most extraordinary and disturbing movies ever to come from the land Down Under . Yes, we’ve come a long way from making throwaway Howling sequels. Snowtown has been picked up for distribution in the US and Britain, so keep your eyes open for it and take the trip if you dare.
©2010 – 2011 Cinematic Horror Archive, Dave J. Wilson – All work is the property of the credited author(s) and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.