The writing and directing partnership of Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes prove that they are a force to sit up and pay attention to in their sophomore feature Sissy. On face value this film could appear as a typical trip down a dark past where old haunts rise to the surface but there’s something deeper at play here that spells out a disturbing and topical story. Psychological trauma can fester when not dealt with or addressed in a way that can help heal those involved. Without it, carnage can ensue, which is exactly what happens here.
Sissy (Aisha Dee) is a social influencer, projecting a world of calm and serenity out into the social cyber world. A life appears to be bliss but it soon becomes evident that she has a temporary band aid over her to propel any fears or anxieties that she has and it’s about to get wrenched off when she bumps into her former school BFF, Emma (played by Barlow). We soon learn that Emma is about to get married and old feelings are explored once more when Sissy is asked to join her for a night out, swiftly followed by a weekend away with friends to celebrate Emma’s upcoming nuptials. Sissy is all too eager to please, hoping that she can rekindle their friendship and the connection they once had. That is until Alex (Emily De Margheriti) enters the scene once again. The girl who took away that friendship and sparked an inner rage in Sissy with drastic consequences. Can Sissy contain these feelings or will it all bubble over and the fury take control.
Essentially what Barlow and Senes have tapped into here is the psychological upheaval that is brought about through social trauma. This tale has humour and heartache abound as we watch the slow disintegration of strength and positivity as it crumbles in the wake of old scars. We can never really bury our emotions, good or ill without some kind of ramification. Sissy is the extreme example of what can occur when we don’t pay attention to the negative aspects of our life and face up to them. With solid performances and believable characters stretched to their most extreme personifications, there’s delight to be found amongst the carnage and mayhem.
Australian Director Andrew Traucki certainly has a taste for aquaphobia with his breakout feature hits Black Water, and The Reef. Back in 2020, he decided to revisit his croc shock feature with the sequel, Black Water: Abyss. Now is the turn of the shark, with a delve back into the reef with a twist in the tale for The Reef: Stalked.
His hook is in telling the story of Nic (Teressa Liane), who is still in the breaches of surviving the trauma of her sister’s murder. Nic tries to reconnect with the world by submerging herself into an old pastime on a kayaking adventure with her younger sister, Annie (Saskia Archer), and her two friends, Jodie (Ann Truong) and Lisa (Kate Lister). Before long the predator of the ocean makes its presence known and begins to hunt them down without backing down once it latches onto their scent.
The topic of trauma is a gripping one and presents and interesting premise for Traucki to grapple with and I applaud him in dabbling in this terrain to weave together an incredible story about survival against the odds and placing it in a shark horror feature.
The premise, and the topic may have been a stretch too far to blend them together with a sense of ease, as too often the focus shifts on the unrest between the two siblings rather than the fear itself. It’s a tough balancing act, because you want to establish a connection with your audience by building on the characters’ exchange with one another. Unfortunately I felt that the dialogue and performances were waning; a crying shame as Traucki has proven up to the task before, especially in his feature debut, Black Water, thrusting his female protagonists played by Diana Glenn and Maeve Dermody through the ringer, with grit and determination.
The lack of grit is all too evident here, and the leads spar off each other from one scenario to the next without too much substance to wade through.
So what of the shark?
When it appears there are flashes of images to spark fear in the audience but it never comes across as sinister enough and murky as a result. The one moment where your heart spins for a moment, is when some children are caught in the mix with their life in the hands of fate. In this instance, you are willing for them to survive and here Traucki shows his hand at playing with the audience’s heartstrings. A sign that he still knows how to play that card and its not completely lost at sea.
Shark movies are always a tough gig to sell, and Andrew Traucki does his best to repeat his formula from his 2010 feature, The Reef with a notable and worthy attempt at looking at the impact of trauma.
I really wanted to like this film and champion homegrown Australian cinema but despite some notable moments, the result is a stretch too far with performances and dialogue not weighing up to the potential that a strong subject like trauma deserves.
The Reef: Stalked is released in Australian cinemas from Thursday 28th July.
Before the Spierig Brothers would take on what would be their second feature film as their writer, director, producer team with Daybreakers starring Ethan Hawke, and possibly their best movie to date.
Before they would even attempt to expand the Saw franchise with Jigsaw and then to breathe further life into the Hammer Films productions with Winchester, they would craft their first feature, Undead; a schlocky, low budget, zombie / alien invasion feast set in remote Australia. The movie has just been released by Umbrella Entertainment as a Blu-ray/Dvd edition for their Beyond Genres collection. Check out the extras at the foot of this article.
The movie itself is not exactly brain fodder, but I remember from its initial release back in 2003 that it was a lot of fun to watch and packed with that unusual blend of Aussie humour that always seems to lift the storyline. There are some iconic moments too, namely from Mungo Mckay’s character Marion, a doomsday prepper who has encountered a paranormal encounter before and has been subjected to being an outcast ever since. His performance channels somewhere between Ash Campbell for sheer resilience and his namesake, James Wayne, with a cowboy like approach to survival and armed with a triple shotgun among his many resources.
Interestingly though, Marion isn’t the hero of the movie, as our lead protagonist falls to meek Rene (Felicity Mason) who has been a downtrodden character most of her life and just wants to get the hell out of Kansas. When push comes to shove though, she soon shows her metal and comes out fighting.
To look at this movie and scorn the performances though which I have seen some people comment on is to miss the style that The Spierig Brothers were going for. Clearly, they wanted to experiment with some visual effects, something that the extras in this release shines a light on. Undead would be their showpiece and a playing field for them to experiment with what they could do through a feature narrative. The problem as always is budget, which there wasn’t a lot of. So knowing this, the filmmakers went with a ramped up melodramatic, pulp style 50’s invasion feel. One that, knowing this beforehand, takes the pressure of applying a highbrow response to and simply letting it flow and enjoying the ride.
The film is packed with a lot of set play, from zombies attacking, survival instincts, seedy characters, bullheaded police officers, aliens, infection and nods to the era that formed the base of these kind of movies, one that comes to mind are some of the earlier scenes in Village of the Damned. There are also elements of Night of the Living Dead at play here, all of which goes to show that The Spierig Brothers are lovers of their craft and with Undead shows a great introduction to the celluloid mainstream with a film that wears its heart on its sleeve. So while it may not be original or groundbreaking, Undead still offers enough to entertain and essential viewing for film lovers who are interested in following the journey of a couple of creatives in the rise.
I really wanted to champion this movie. After all, not only is it a homegrown movie and for this Surgeons of Horror love to support where we can; and it also boasts Cassandra Magrath (Wolf Creek) as its lead protagonist.
Unfortunately the story falls short of expectations, lost in the murkiness of the folklore that it was trying to create and one can’t help but feel that it is the writing that is lacking in depth or clarity.
It’s not like Australia is incapable of producing witchery or the dark arts with investigation and mystery. One need only look at the fantastic series The Gloaming written by Vicky Madden to see what it takes to do this with a contemporary feel and to do it well. Sure, this was worked into a series with ample time to allow the characters to acquire the depth needed to dive into the enigma, but that feels like an easy out as what transpires out of The Witches of Blackwood lacks anything solid for the audience to grab onto and as such, we lose interest quite swiftly.
Haunted by an incident while on duty as a police officer, Claire (Magrath) returns to her old stomping ground to heal old wounds and new ones following the wake of her mother’s death. When she arrives in Blackwood however, she is met with ill-feeling and strange encounters from the locals. This leads her to find her inner sleuth once more, to uncover what people are hiding and revelations that will test her will.
I thought that Magrath was compelling in this and given the chance to show off her acting abilities that have have been left to the wind in other recent movies. Director Kate Whitbread carves out some beautiful moments to highlight the harsh yet beautiful landscape that Australia has to offer, but without any real substance, the film simply can’t lift itself out of the quagmire, sinking into a shallow plot.
I gotta say that I was pleasantly surprised by Awoken. I had prejudiced this Horror, Mystery, Thriller on face value because of its quiet film release here in Australia where it premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival and has been subjected to the Straight to Home Entertainment release.
This is an unfair judgement on my behalf though, as Awoken is one of those admittedly middle-of-the-road movies, but it does just enough to keep you hooked and entertained to its conclusion, which is a testament to Director Daniel J. Phillips and his writing partner Alan Grace.
Phillips chooses to keep his setting simple, predominately in one location and in doing so, can heighten the tension surrounding his key players, whilst keeping the budget low.
HIs storytelling is also strong, flicking from past and present with the use of old medical tapes that the research team slowly trickle through to gain an understanding of what they are up against.
And the choice of subject matter in Fatal Familial Insomnia is also one that sparks the imagination of terror in us all as this disorder affects the thalamus, part of the brain structure that controls our emotional expression and can lead to lack of sleep and dementia.
With a select group of subjects, a small medical team, led by leading doctor, Robert (Erik Thomsen), go all flatliners and try to do some underground research in literally an underground laboratory in the hopes of finding a cure or a breakthrough to help those suffering from this condition. Robert has had previous experience in conducting similar experiments and serves as the chief advisor and patriarchal figure of the group.
Our lead protagonist, Karla (Sara West – Ash Vs Evil Dead) is one of these medical students, who’s brother Blake (Benson Jack Anthony – Cleverman) suffers from the genetic insomnia condition and is subjected to this observation trial. The clue here is in the genetics component as it its revealed that their mother also had the same condition and was subjected to similar medical trials.
It is through their studies though that things begin to escalate. Cut off from the world above and incredibly sleep deprived, both patients and medics alike begin to hallucinate.
Is this the instabilities of the mind though? Or is there demonic possession at play?
Awoken doesn’t break new ground in the realms of science vs religion and suspected demonic possession, but what it does do well is construct a tight knit, well crafted storyline that drip feeds the tension whilst building up the paranoia and uncertainty of reality.
Some of the effects are a bit tried and tested, falling into the fairly predictable terrain, but Director Daniel J. Phillips has carefully positioned the audience into a false sense of security and then dialling up the entertainment level, whilst spinning a strong thriller that poses all the right questions towards a highly amped ending.
The film opens with what feels like a notable nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat as we are greeted with a group of survivors floating in a life raft, having escaped from their torpedoed hospital ship. They have no food, no water, and are close to giving up when a small thread of hope arrives in the shape of a German U-Boat, but what lies aboard is a descent into hell where the battle of survival has just begun.
Like Lifeboat, the group are at odds with one another and suspicious of some among them including Russian POW, Alexander (Alex Cooke), who happens to be a crack shot with a rifle and probably the most natural survivalist of the crew. Also casting a dubious past to his character is the token Brit, the weedy Gerard Faraday. Leading the charge is Nathan Sinclair (Nathan Philips) who captivates the viewer with his magnanimous presence and die hard attitude, but when they are faced with an unknown evil presence onboard the ship, they must learn to put aside their differences and look to unite if they are ever going to make it through “this bloody war”.
It is Alyssa Sutherland (Vikings), that the audience really gets behind however as the heart of the crew and it helps that she is a ‘medic” who has a pained past with a desire to heal everyone. She really captures the attention which is a testament to her on screen appeal and her weight as an actor, pulling you into the storyline and connecting with her character.
This is also a huge accomplishment of Justin Dix’s cinematic gaze for his sophomore outing in the director’s chair. Dix manages to craft a highly engaging storyline, that is essentially vampires on a boat, using his incredible skill set with visual and creature effects to boost the appeal above and beyond the usual fanfare. The screenplay which is also overseen by Dix and his co-writer, Jordan Prosser, weave together enough ups and downs and moments of turmoil for the crew, as they fight against the odds. A massive plus is that we’re presented with characters that are incredibly believable, and with whom you want to see survive, when you know in your heart simply ain’t gonna happen, and in doing so casts you at odds as you also secretly want their demise to come.
Hands down, Director Justin Dix has crafted a highly engaging, action-packed thrill ride with characters that you care for.
Combined with some decent effects and a creative storyline, Dix has in my humble opinion put himself and his production company Wicked of Oz firmly on the map. A must see film that will definitely entertain.
Available on DVD at JB Hi Fi and Sanity and Video on Demand through iTunes/Google /Fetch/Foxtel Store/Umbrella Entertainment from August 5th.
The Faceless Man is an off-beat independent horror movie that is a boiling pot of subgenres with the Ozploitation era embedded firmly on its sleeve. Like any low-budget film it has its flaws but let’s focus on the positives first, because if anything this film has a lot of heart and is prepared to face one of life’s greatest fears head on.
For his debut feature, writer/director James Di Martino decided to tackle the subject of cancer as the faceless entity stalking its prey and pushing them to the edge of sanity. It’s a bold approach in a playing field that deserves a higher quality offering than what is on offer, but you can only work with the resources and materials you have at hand. Despite this, Di Martino still manages to eek out some spectacularly eerie moments peppered with some decent and dark humour along the way.
The tone of the film is deliciously macabre in places and these moments will resonate highly with any fan of the genre and even delivers great character actors in Roger Ward and Andy McPhee who do not disappoint in their respective roles.
The story centres on Emily (Sophie Thurling) as a cancer survivor in fear that she may fall sick once again who is driven by paranoia and a past that haunts her. So when presented with a weekend away with her friends, she sees it as a way to get away from her troubles, but fate has other plans in store.
Characteristically speaking, Di Martino provides a suitably quirky and unsettling movie which suffers a little from some performances and too many right turns in the plotline. What it does promise is a director with a vision, who with the right tools could produce some decent storylines in the future. Definitely a name to look out for.
Today we learnt of an exciting new project that is shooting in Northern NSW, Australia which could herald another strong story that exposes the dark underbelly of our Great Southern Land. Australia has been slowly carving out some disturbing tales of late such as the fantastic Hounds of Love,Killing Ground, Rabbit, and Lost Gully Road, all released within the last couple of years and well worth your time.
Described as a psychological thriller, Sweet River is set in between Byron Bay and Tweed Heads, a land filled with sugar cane farms, that can grow up to 16 metres in height and potentially ripe enough to harbour secrets within. It’s a beautiful part of the world, so expect some stunning shots from Justin McMillan (Storm Surfers 3D), who also co-owns a drone company.
The story unfolds with Hanna Montague (Lisa Kay – Indian Summers) who is on a quest for closure following the death of her son, and moves to a small cottage, but is confronted by a town hell-bent on hiding its secrets. She is united in her grief with her neighbour (Genevieve Lemon) who has also lost a child in tragic circumstances, but how far into their sorrow are they willing to go in order to uncover the truth?
Also starring Martin Sacks (Wentworth, A Place To Call Home), Sweet River promises to set the mystery that lurks beyond the shadows ablaze, and deliver a tale that could have devastating consequences.
It is expected to be released in 2020 through Film Ink Presents.
Mike Green has been gradually building on his film credentials with a series of screenplays and work as 1st AD on a number of high profile films including Truth starring Cate Blanchet and Robert Redford. Now he has turned his attention to directing his first feature length movie, Outback, a tale of survival in the heart of Australia, and casts a bewildered and fractured American couple in the midst of this savage land.
Before its Sydney screening as part of Monsterfest Australia on Sat 2 Nov at 9pm, Mike sat down with the surgeons team to discuss his journey and his own challenges in creating his vision.
Mike Green interview:
What initially drew you to the story behind Lisa and Wade’s outback plight?
Well, I had a proper budget feature that I was hoping to make with a cast attached and building a team and then Nicole Kidman announced Angel of Mine which on the surface sounded very much like our feature film project. That really pulled the rug beneath our feet and I had a small window of time in which to shoot something because my wife was going back to work from maternity leave and a little bit of money saved on my credit card. So I essentially reverse engineered something I could shoot in a compressed amount of time. And 10 days is what we shot Outback in. So I took a familiar story which was Open Water, the two people that get stranded in the ocean. I thought about taking that situation and placing them in the outback. Limiting your cast means limiting so much of the production, so it was essentially going to be a two-hander. Everyone has a perception of the Australian outback and how vast and dry it is, how it’s filled with critters and creepy crawlies. So I took that idea and instead of having a serial killer or madman as the antagonist, I made Australia and the outback, the antagonist. No one has done a film called Outback which was surprising to me. So I put it all in a blender and out came a two-hander about this couple of Americans and the dynamic between them in a survival thriller with this tragic love story, and place them in a scenario that sees them stranded in the outback.
There is a lot of weight on the shoulders of the two leads, Lauren Lofberg and Taylor Wiese to carry the film. How did you get them to tap into the gravitas of their situation?
The first thing I needed to do when casting was have the right face, character, and persona for the parts, so after reaching out to a few people I spoke to Lauren, who despite her small showreel had something there, but she was looking to do something substantial and put a stamp on something. She put a few self tapes down and she was really emotional and she was going through some things at the time, which I asked with her blessing if I could weave into the storyline because it was something so personal to her and we knew that she could tap into that so easily and access those emotional time stones.
What do you think fascinates us about human survival?
I think there is this primeval situation where you would ask yourself, “what would I do?” It doesn’t take much for the audience to be there with them. The performance and environment helped from a cinematic perspective. You often hear stories of how even locals get lost for two or three days in the Blue Mountains for example, and things can get pretty gnarly quickly. Even with the best intentions and with a phone on you, when you start to get dehydrated, what seems like a smart decision, upon reflection is like, “what was I thinking?”
What has been the most enduring thing that you’ve encountered in your lifetime? Have you had much experience of the outback yourself and what impact did this beautifully vast location have on production.
For me taking from the theme of the movie of not taking tomorrow for granted, was a way into the storyline. From the plot and survival aspect, I used to go to the outback a lot as a kid with a mate who had a property. We were in a couple of situations where we ran out of water and we didn’t have a compass, and when you are out there, you don’t really have any sense of direction other than which way the sun is going. He’d been on the land a bit and I was more of a city slicker, and I remember him saying the mathematical equation that I use in the film, and he knew from my answers that I was dehydrated even though I wasn’t aware of it. I could have been in a lot of trouble if it wasn’t for him and his experience on the land.
What would you say was your toughest challenge during filming?
I’m first AD, I’m producing, I’m catering, like I’m cooking at night, I’m printing off the schedule for the next day for the crew and everyone is working so hard, so you have to lead by example. In that environment and working such long hours in the heat, working so intimately with such a tight-knit crew, It’s not always rosy and part of having such a good team is allowing people to let off steam in certain ways. The toughest thing was keeping everyone emotionally and physically on the same page in what we were trying to do. You’re really fathering a group of people, in the most beautiful way.
What do you think or hope that people will take home after watching Outback?
I’m hoping the audience reflect on their own life and how they can embrace the day or the moment, whether that’s with their family, career, or just life itself, and appreciate it. I know that sounds a bit arty farty, but being in Australia, there shouldn’t be anyone whinging really. Any kind of developed country, I know there has been some bad things that have happened, but each to their own I guess.
Now that your first feature film is released into the festival circuit, what was the biggest learning you will take and what is next on the horizon?
I think the biggest learning for me is to keep making stuff, It’s not always going to click but you should be getting better when you make stuff and that’s the key to improving. It’s that old adage, “Practice, practice, practice”. In regards to what’s next, I’m working with a bunch of writers I kinda wanna be aggressive and get projects made and being prolific.
During filming of Australian western The Proposition, British actor Ray Winstone once remarked that every living thing in this country was out to kill you. It’s this component that director Mike Green wanted to paint of his homeland to evoke that sense of fear and dread in the vast open plain.
Instead of having a serial killer or madman as the antagonist, I made Australia and the outback, the antagonist”
We often vision Australia as this serene, beautiful land which on the surface casts one of the most majestic scenes that our planet offers, but if you delve deep enough, you find the hidden dangers lurking in plain sight. Green lures us into the desert terrain through the eyes of an American couple on what should have been a romantic adventure, but like the land in which they set out to explore, Lisa (Lauren Lofsberg) and Wade (Tyler Wiese) are just as fractured and unpredictable.
We join Lisa and Wade at the start of their journey from Sydney Airport where we learn that Lisa has rejected Wade’s marriage proposal. The result finds the couple disconnected and searching for each other to see whether the relationship is worth fighting for. In doing so, they become lost and insignificant in a foreign land. Testament to Green’s writing skills should be mentioned as he draws out some well-developed characters in his leads which is fleshed out with some fantastic performances. This is a good thing as between them they need to carry the movie with very little other characters to interact with. By the film’s conclusion, we really care about their outcome, because Green has taken the time for us to connect and care for them both.
The choices that Lisa and Wade that lead them to their ordeal are born out of ignorance and naivety but their decisions that are believable and in the moment, as they try to navigate their way to survival whilst facing a number of dangers along the way from snakes and scorpions, to searing heat and dehydration. All of which surmount into a gripping, heart-wrenching drama that captivates right to the end.
Director Mike Green takes the audience on a brutal and harsh journey of survival through the lens of an American couple on the brink of collapse. The gritty realism along with excellent performances helps lift this movie and casts a blistering light on the savage land with a narrative that keeps you hooked and willing the characters to endure their torment and live to tell their tale.
Outback will be screening atMonsterfest Australia 2019, where cast and crew will be available for a Q&A post film screening time below: