GORE IN THE STORE
Directed by Justin Kurzel.
Starring Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, Bob Adriaens, Richard Green, Anthony Groves.
Crime Drama, Australia, 120 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Limited Edition Blu-ray via 101 Films on 31st January 2022.
So, Christmas is now over and the gloomy month of January is upon us, where the days feel like weeks and the seemingly far-away prospect of the next pay day is the only excitement to keep you going. The good people at 101 Films feel your pain and have, thankfully, put together a package of a movie to delight and entertain you, and lift you out of the post-Christmas doldrums. Well, it has got ‘snow’ in the title anyway...
SNOWTOWN (a.k.a. THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS) is a grim and brutal dramatization of real events that happened in Australia in the 1990s, where a collection of barrels were found stuffed with dismembered human remains inside an abandoned bank in the small town of Snowtown, just north of Adelaide. The main killer was a guy named John Bunting who, along with accomplices Robert Wagner, Mark Haydon and James (Jamie) Vlassakis, was swiftly arrested and convicted of the crimes, which remain one of the most notorious in Australian history.
The movie begins in Salisbury, Adelaide, a run-down suburb where Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris) is raising her four sons. Elizabeth’s boyfriend, who lives across the street, takes indecent pictures of the three youngest boys but when she finds out she discovers the police don’t really want to know. However, word of these things tend to get around and she is contacted by Barry Lane (Richard Green), a cross-dressing homosexual man who puts her in contact with John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), a charismatic and seemingly friendly man who quickly moves in and starts a hate campaign against the neighbour, involving Elizabeth’s 16-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) in stunts such as writing abuse on his walls and throwing dismembered kangaroo limbs at the front door.
Jamie is a quiet kid who is regularly raped by his older brother Troy (Anthony Groves) and starts to see John as a father figure who wants to help him out, although it quickly becomes clear that the aggressively homophobic John has big plans for Jamie as the manipulative father figure is grooming the impressionable teenager to recruit him in his gang of degenerates who torture and kill anybody they see as different or a threat.
SNOWTOWN was the feature debut of director Justin Kurzel (ASSASSIN’S CREED) and the movie sticks closely to the real-life events that happened, although there are a few small differences, such as in real life John and Elizabeth were married whereas in the movie they are not. As grim as the crimes themselves, Kurzel films the movie almost like a documentary, shot with a washed-out look that gives the whole thing a look as grey as the concrete of the street it was filmed in and putting it right alongside the likes of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and Jim Van Bebber’s THE MANSON FAMILY as a movie that makes you want to shower after you’ve watched it.
The killings themselves are secondary here, the focus being Jamie and his relationship with Bunting, and both actors are superb, especially Daniel Henshall who fills the screen when he is on it purely by being charismatic and saying the right things to the younger Jamie, seducing him by offering a helping hand. Mum Elizabeth is portrayed as more sympathetic than what the real events would suggest, showing a desperate mother struggling to do right by her kids, and Louise Harris – in her only feature film role, for which she won Best Supporting Actress at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards – is utterly convincing.
Despite focusing on the relationships, the movie doesn’t shy away from being brutal and violent when it needs to be. The scenes of male rape, torture and humiliation are graphic but realistic, the documentary feel and grubby production doing most of the work to convince you that you really are watching gangs of serial killers and paedophiles going about their despicable business. Most of the cast were not actors and were locals that Justin Kurzel had to convince to take part in the film, but those natural reactions and underplayed dramatics are the key to what makes the film so engaging.
But being relentlessly bleak has its limits and where SNOWTOWN does come undone a little is in its length, as two hours of unrelenting abuse and sleaze with no humour or shade is a hard slog, especially when the movie starts to run out of steam about 15 minutes from the end and just sort of stops, the screen fading to black before detailing the sentences that those involved in the killings received. It is difficult to see how Justin Kurzel and his co-writers could have ended it without making something up or adding some unnecessary flair that would have been out of step with the rest of the movie but having spent the previous couple of hours with characters acting like animals to each other it feels a little unsatisfactory just to end without actually seeing some sort of comeuppance, rather than having to read about it before the credits roll.
Nevertheless, SNOWTOWN is still required viewing if true crime or serial killer movies are your thing because there aren’t a huge number of movies based on real events this stark in their depiction of evil, and 101 Films’s presentation of the film is excellent. Coming housed in a rigid slipcase, the disc contains an audio commentary with film critics Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson and an audio commentary with director Justin Kurzel, interviews with Justin Kurzel and actor Lucas Pittaway, deleted scenes, casting footage, a summary of the real crimes and a booklet featuring essays on SNOWTOWN, the murders and suburban violence, so there is plenty to get stuck into if you fancy it but it’s probably best to take regular breaks between extras as the material is as relentlessly disturbing as the movie itself.
Like all serial killers John Bunting was - and remains - a curiosity and a macabre figure that will likely fascinate long after he is gone but given how true-to-life this movie on his crimes is it is unlikely that there be another take on it without giving way to artistic licence, which is the very opposite of what SNOWTOWN is, and that is as real a depiction of depravity, manipulation and domination as you are likely to capture on camera for mass audience consumption. In fact, the only missing from this set was some soap so you can wash your grubby hands after handling the disc, such is the effect of the filmmaking.