Snowtown (The Snowtown Murders)
Written by Shaun Grant
Directed by Justin Kurzel
When does using a trope devalue a film? That’s a question that far too often horror filmmakers aren’t willing to ask of themselves. Snowtown is yet another example of a film dragged down by its dogmatic adherence to a common horror trope. Dogs are innocent, in all walks of life this is pretty much an accepted fact. Showing a character killing a dog in a horror movie instantaneously pegs them as evil. That is also a fact in just about all facets of film life. When Snowtown felt the need to resort to such manipulation it seriously damaged the film. The act itself is sure to offend the sensibilities of animal lovers, but that’s the point and not the problem. It’s the cheap way that the trope establishes character that is the problem. It’s as if the writer and director could think of no better way to establish that John Bunting is evil and that he is pulling Jamie Vlassakis under his thrall. Later sequences in the film show that there were ways to show the evilness of Bunting and his ability to manipulate Jamie. There was no need for the film to stoop to such a cheap and manipulative level by using the tired trope of killing the innocent dog.
Initial griping about tropes aside, Snowtown is the type of horror film that should leave a deep resonance with most viewers. It would have been very easy for Snowtown to give way to the slasher tendencies of its story. The script by Shaun Grant never does this, as his sparse story rarely inserts the actual actions of Bunting and his compatriots. Instead the focus is put on the rhetoric of Bunting, the cult of personality he forms, and the dread that comes about from watching Bunting in a normal setting. Getting to see Bunting murder one of his victims is chilling, but those scenes pale in comparison to the moments when Bunting is watching TV with his family or playfully hugging the youngest son of his adopted family. By the time the youngest son has shaved his head the viewer knows it’s too late. Bunting’s dominant will and personality has completely taken over the family that took him in, and that realization is far scarier than any stabbing or dismemberment.
What Justin Kurzel brings to the script by Mr. Grant is an oppressive atmosphere. The director brings all the elements of the film together to form a sense of oppressive dread. There are so many sequences during Snowtown where nothing is happening in terms of physical motion or character interaction. Yet, never do those scenes come across as stale and inert. It is the stillness of non-activity that the atmosphere of Snowtown is established and later poured on. Said stillness adds to the intensity of the action that does occur. When Bunting, and later Jamie, does burst into action the film takes on an intense bent that shocks the film out of its stillness in a horrifically jarring fashion.
Doggie problems and a somewhat hard to follow narrative (in terms of character deaths/actions being a shade too muddied) aside Snowtown is a hauntingly atmospheric horror film. Mr. Kurzel shows great promise as a director because in his first feature film he already understands the importance of atmosphere and tension in a horror film. The real life Snowtown murders are chilling all on their own, but Snowtown manages to add a sense of foreboding to the characters that makes the tale that much creepier. Australia has a long history of hauntingly atmospheric horror films, and Snowtown is another well done entry in that history.