True Horrors

Despite a relatively inexperienced cast and crew, 'The Snowtown Murders' is a white-knuckle ride

You would think it would be hard to hide a group of serial killers in a town of 400 people. But beginning in 1992 and continuing for nearly seven years, John Bunting and his accomplices murdered a dozen people in and around Snowtown, South Australia.

Making matters more bizarre, Bunting and his young assistants knew each victim, yet no one in their orbit ever told the authorities or anybody else. The victims' families were also strangely quiet.

The notoriety that fell on Snowtown was so great that the residents nearly changed its name a few years ago. Maybe they'll take up that cause again, because the producers of The Snowtown Murders compelled a judge to lift some of the 250 suppression orders about the awful details surrounding the crimes in order to tell a more-complete story.

The film connects us to the killings through the eyes of Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway). He was 13 when it all began, but Jamie was already somewhat desensitized: His middle-age neighbor had molested Jamie and his two younger brothers. When word got out about the neighbor, friends of friends began hanging around Jamie's house, plotting a way to get revenge. Strangely enough, the pedophile was not the first victim, but he was the springboard for the next seven years of heinous violence, which in some instances included sexual torture and rape.

Bunting (Daniel Henshall) detests pedophiles and begins to indoctrinate his acquaintances to that way of thinking. It doesn't take a great salesman to damn the local sex offender, after all. But before long, the impressionable group is acting on their leader's hateful and grisly commands. The characterization is almost Hitlerian, with Bunting dominating every conversation, every room, every event and every person. The rest of the killers are merely in his orbit.

The level of violence in The Snowtown Murders is not easy to watch. The scenes are uncomfortably long, incredibly graphic and not in any way for the faint of heart. There is a significant difference between the murders here and in the archetypal American horror film—or even its demented godson, torture porn. It's impossible to take Jason or Freddy seriously; it might be scary to some, but the gore is by and large too cartoonish to get under your skin. The Snowtown Murders is a different animal. Thankfully, we don't have to endure all 12 killings, because that would just be too much.

In part, the ultra-violence becomes difficult because of Jamie's reaction to it. Although he was ultimately convicted of four killings, he can't shake the emotional turmoil they cause him, even the ones he didn't witness. Whether or not the real Jamie Vlassakis had such pangs of remorse is left to his testimony and possibly a psychiatric evaluation, but for the purposes of the film, the audience needs to see his doubt, or the entire thing would just be too overwhelming. The Snowtown Murders walls us in with Jamie, who is not eager to kill anyone, even though he has to—and we're forced into that same space. Therefore, Lucas Pittaway has the hardest job in the film. He plays it a little too shell-shocked at times for the efficiency of the movie, but it's also understated by design: Jamie needs to be subservient to John Bunting.

As the ringleader, Henshall resembles a psychopathic Zach Galifianakis. Burly and obscured by an out-of-control beard, his Bunting does not look like he has the killer instinct, literally or figuratively. However, he says as much with his intense eyes in the quieter moments as he does during one of his hate-filled rants—a rant that boils over into murder.

You wouldn't expect to be familiar with the cast and crew of an exported indie film, and the principals are indeed fairly inexperienced. Henshall has a handful of credits; it's Pittaway's first; writer Shaun Grant is just getting started; and director Justin Kurzel had made only one short film prior to this. Still, all four do remarkable jobs of knowing when to say when. As disturbing as some of the scenes are, they constitute a minority of the action that takes place. Grant and Kurzel mix it up just enough to give us a break when we need it and put most of the focus on the relationship between James and Bunting, not one specific murder or another for gratuitous effect.

Assuming you're fine with the grim realities of The Snowtown Murders, the lone drawback involves geography: Who outside of Australia has heard of these crimes? The movie suffers from not acquainting viewers with the case sooner than it does. For roughly the first 15 minutes, most of what occurs doesn't put us closer to the story that will actually take place. Perhaps that's fine if you know the facts, but most of the world doesn't. The opening sequences do help set the mood and tone, though, so it isn't a total loss; you just don't know how it will get from point A to point B.

But once The Snowtown Murders gets up to speed, it's a white-knuckle ride.