Call it the Hannibal Lecter effect but serial killers became a popular staple of cinema towards the end of last century. Granted not all of these films were as good as Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs (1991) - or David Fincher's Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) - but there is something undeniably irresistible about a film detailing the hunt for a killer with a method to their madness.
The new Australian feature Snowtown is a serial killer movie but is not a police procedural. Director Justin Kurzel and co-writer Shaun Grant place us very much in the belly of the beast; detailing the events of the infamous bodies-in-the-barrels murders which took place in late 1990's South Australia.
And the film is not so much irresistible as unforgettable, nightmare-inducingly so. John Bunting (chillingly played by Daniel Henshall) seduced three others into helping him kill 11 people, disposing of their bodies in said barrels which were eventually discovered by police in an abandoned bank in the South Australian town which gives the film its name.
We witness these events – though thankfully, save for one instance, all the gruesomeness occurs off-camera – through the eyes of Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), the youngest of Bunting's recruits. A victim of sexual abuse from both family and neighbours, Jamie finds a champion-of-sorts in the charismatic Bunting, who holds court at kitchen table neighbourhood pow-wows with the frequent rallying cry to punish paedophiles and homosexuals (he makes no distinction between the two).
Not to justify his actions or absolve Jamie of his involvement, but much like the young protagonist in last year's Animal Kingdom, one can see how easily he was seduced by Bunting; not realising how far gone he was until it was too late.
The effectiveness of Snowtown, for me the scariest (Australian) film since Wolf Creek (2005) – and not since have I wanted so badly for a film to end – is its evocation of an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. As stated, there is only the one, overly-long torture scene; for the most part it's the menacing presence of Bunting combined with the bleak suburban milieu that has you on the edge of your seat, and barely resisting the urge to cower beneath it.
And that feeling stays with you. It's difficult once you leave the cinema to comfort yourself with the mantra “it's only a movie” when you know these events actually happened; that people as evil, yet equally benign, as this exist. It's that realisation which makes other 'serial killer as hero' pop culture, such as Hannibal Lecter and television's Dexter (of which I am a fan), seem trivial and even offensive.
Many audience members will, in one way or another, find Snowtown offensive; almost every media screening has witnessed walkouts. It's certainly not a pleasant evening's viewing but it's not the almost-snuff film one high profile Australian reviewer has compared it to.
Kurzel doesn't glorify or sensationalise in his account of events, and its this everyday-ness which is the most shocking aspect of all. That he and Grant don't provide any great insight into what drove Bunting to do what he did may be the film's major flaw, but not one worthy of dismissing Snowtown. You certainly won't forget it.