Michael Helms – Fearful Features
The Queensland sun beats down and dust blows up from the dirt track when Fango steps onto the first of several locations to witness the filming of the stylish new Australian serial-killer thriller ACOLYTES (out this week on Anchor Bay DVD following numerous festival appearances over the past year). Virtually entombed in concrete—beneath an overpass that supports a busy highway—one can still hear the traffic, but it’s virtually drowned out by the noise of a fly swarm—perhaps entirely fitting for a film that deals with the stench of rotting corpses and the people who cause them.
Fango freezes just before rounding a corner where a rehearsal is taking place; much shouting stops suddenly, and this writer takes a spot behind the monitors being fed the picture from the Viper camera—the hi-def rig of choice for the likes of David Fincher and Michael Mann. Director Jon Hewitt calls action as three young actors hesitantly and then enthusiastically start beating the hell out of an early model BMW. Despite the oppressive conditions, filmmaker and actors are all smiles when Hewitt calls “Cut.” Brimming with vigor, the teenaged cast would gladly continue with their “insurance job,” but have done such great demolition work that there is little choice but to move on to the next location.
En route to the much more scenic setting of a long bridge over a large sea inlet, further information about the production is gathered before spending the rest of the day watching the aforementioned thespians running for their lives. A location-based film shot around the sleepy seaside township of Redcliffe, north of Brisbane, ACOLYTES follows three teens (played by 16- and 17-year-olds Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, Josh Payne and Sebastian Gregory) who come across a burial site in a forest, and decide to track down the person who created it and force them to commit a crime on their behalf. Supporting the youthful trio are veterans of assorted horror and action films, including SMOKIN’ ACES’ Joel Edgerton, Michael Dorman (soon to be seen in DAYBREAKERS) and THE MATRIX’s Belinda McClory.
ACOLYTES is the first genre outing for producers Richard Stewart and Penny Wall. The always demure Wall, who previously served as production manager on OUTBACK VAMPIRES (a.k.a. THE WICKED), notes that they were attracted to the premise of “three teenagers who take on something they cannot control, but don’t know they can’t control it.” ACOLYTES is also the initial produced feature screenplay for the writing team of Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause, whose script was optioned by Stewart and Wall some four years prior to its going before the cameras; the producers eventually hired Hewitt to tackle the revisions and take the helm.
Cruising around the picturesque but seemingly quiet Redcliffe, Hewitt reveals that he was amazed to discover, just before production began, a news item detailing how several local youths had murdered a vagrant, removed his head and used it for a soccer ball. “This created a creepy credibility for ACOLYTES,” the filmmaker observes. Hewitt, who has spent the past 25 years working in production (he helmed the violent thrillers BLOODLUST and REDBALL, among others), distribution and exhibition in Australia—involved in everything from the short-lived Down Under release of SALO to running the first dedicated video cinema in the early ’90s that wasn’t a porno house—remains an enthusiast for all sorts of film. He describes ACOLYTES as “a chiller, which for me is a marriage of thriller and horror elements aimed at a teen demographic but with some subtextual weight and meat on it’s bones that might appeal to a more discerning or adult audience.
“It’s KEN PARK meets TWIN PEAKS with the chutzpah of SUSPIRIA,” he continues, “but shot in Queensland on realistic landscapes with realistic teens, attempting to tell a real story that resonates with truthfulness, even though the concept is generic: three teens blackmail a serial killer into getting rid of someone for them.
“Actually, that’s pretty high-concept when you think about it. But I’ve tried to keep it real by making the killer real and the kids real, and creating a real universe in which it occurs—even though what happens, which is kids digging up bodies, blackmailing people and being slaughtered, is all very generic. What I like to do is marry that with art, so I have a very strong commercial foundation that can resonate in purely commercial terms. As an Australian filmmaker, the only thing that we can do that Hollywood filmmakers can’t is be different. We’re allowed to do that. We can cast 16-year-olds to be 16-year-olds and set it in this bizarre landscape. We can get them talking in an idiom; it’s a teen movie, but it will be different. That’s my ambition for the film.”
One thing for sure is that ACOLYTES is about revenge and being possessed by the stupid, crazy moment when you seize the opportunity to exact it. And how things can quickly take a turn for the worse. The story was fed by the formative experiences of its two original writers, who grew up in a small Queensland town similar to Redcliffe before becoming involved in TV and advertising.
“ACOLYTES was born in Shane’s bedroom in the early ’90s,” notes Armstrong during a three-way phone conversation between Brisbane, Melbourne and Singapore, quickly qualifying that statement by saying he was only standing in the doorway at the time. “It actually took many years to produce a draft, but it always revolved around a couple of kids involved with a serial murderer.”
“The story came out of a true event from the early ’80s in Western Australia. involving a husband-and-wife killer/rapist team,” Krause adds. “Then in Queensland, two soldiers kidnapped two young boys on the Gold Coast Highway. The boys were 12 or 13 at the time, and that’s how old we were. It happened outside Dreamworld and was completely shocking, because one of the boys was tortured and eventually buried alive, while his friend was forced to participate before being casually driven home.” The two scribes agree that they were inspired to write ACOLYTES with the intention to equally freak out and disturb an audience.
Later that night in Redcliffe, as the sound of the ocean lapping against the backyard of his rented house provides a relaxing soundscape, Hewitt elaborates on ACOLYTES’ narrative. “We’ve structured this script to play on a base thriller level, and have a beat at least every 10 minutes that does something like shock the audience or pique their interest or take a turn. It snowballs toward a climax where big things happen. Lead characters are killed and people are revealed to not be who they seem. The horrific elements, for me, involve certain revelations that occur. Just on a visceral level, they’re frightening because people are getting killed, but also on a subtextual level. One involves two boys who were assaulted over a long period of time; you see this in flashback, but it’s not graphic. You eventually understand what happened, and then a character enunciates it in his pivotal moment.”
The next day takes Fango to the forest of death that’s bordered by Steve Irwin Way (the road to the late crocodile hunter’s beloved Australia Zoo). In between waiting for Elvis the pig to arrive (though he’ll only be heard and not seen in the final cut) and the setting up of another animal shot that actually works, the young cast share their thoughts on a scenario that involves them in sex, drugs and several acts of violence. Payne, who plays James, immediately related to his character because “he was like many guys from my school who treated their girlfriends so disrespectfully. I could also understand how this was caused by what had happened to him when he was 12. This made absolute sense why he needed his two friends to lean on. The kissing scenes weren’t bad either!”
Payne admits he doesn’t get involved in as much mayhem as his onscreen buddy Mark (played by Gregory), with whom he has also become fast friends offscreen. “Mark gets to do all the cool stuff, like being stabbed and getting hit by a car and beaten up a lot,” Payne notes, “but James does get to stab somebody with an arrow, and that’s pretty cool. Actually, my first scene was pretty horrific, where I fought another guy and it was very muddy and bloody. The director kept calling for more blood, and I had to have constant tears in my eyes. Everyone helped keep me in a bad state of mind, and well before the end, all I wanted to do was go home to bed. Jon came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’ve just popped your film cherry,’ which was pretty funny. Thanks, mate—a great thought!”