ACOLYTES – Variety

by Russell Edwards

Curiosity leads three teens into a murderous tangle of plots in “Acolytes.” Oz chiller affects a scuzzy look, but its lensing is as precise as its intent to follow previous Aussie slasher success “Wolf Creek.” While auds may guess one major narrative deception early on, the yarn has plenty of barbed, unexpected twists. Pic, which preemed at South Korea’s PiFan fantasy fest and is skedded for Toronto’s Midnight Madness sidebar, should find devotees at fests and in commercial distribution before lingering on in ancillary.

Story begins with a terrified, semi-naked teenager running through a forest before colliding with a speeding car. Post-main titles, the narrative introduces an uneasy triangle of teenagers: object of desire Chasely (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence), slick ringleader James (Joshua Payne) and slightly geeky Mark (Sebastian Gregory).

Left to his own devices as his friends’ romance flourishes, Mark finds himself in the forest, secretly observing a mustached man (Joel Edgerton) burying something and then driving away in an SUV. Mark enlists James and Chasely to help him dig up the unknown item, on the basis that it’s some kind of buried treasure. When the excavation reveals a soiled Canadian flag and the bullet-marked body of a dead woman, the three start playing detective in hopes of catching a serial killer.

While cruising the local streets, the teens see police hassling a newly paroled young thug, Gary Parker (Michael Dorman). Like Chasely and Mark, auds will quickly realize James has set Parker up for this harassment — and rapidly conclude that the grudge between the teen and the ex-jailbird has a long history.

Subsequently, protags track down the SUV to a disturbingly white suburban house occupied by the mustached man, his deaf wife and their young baby. Hereon, the narrative moves into high gear and its savagely misanthropic tone comes to the fore. In its efforts to startle, pic keeps pushing the envelope and pulling the rug, but doesn’t always know when enough is enough. Still, writers S.P. Krause, Shayne Armstrong and helmer Jon Hewitt plausibly bring all the disparate plot elements together.

Main thesps make a convincing teen trio, and Edgerton’s suspected serial killer, though on the periphery for pic’s first hour, manages to maintain menace despite his slightly ridiculous appearance.

Hewitt’s helming is sharp, if rhythmically repetitious, and the unsettlingly ethereal HD lensing is slicker than it initially appears. Soundscape is expertly controlled, complementing the content rather than substituting for it.

Camera (color, widescreen, HD-to-35mm), Mark Pugh; editor, Simon Martin; music, David Franzke; production designer, Michelle Sotheren; sound (Dolby Digital), Michael Valier Berther. Reviewed at Cinema 10, Greater Union George St., Sydney, April 3, 2008. (In PiFan Film Festival, South Korea — competing. Also in Melbourne, Brisbane film festivals, Toronto Film Festival — Midnight Madness.) Running time: 91 MIN.