* Many spoilers ahead unless you are an Australian and already know the whole story ~ watch before reading! *
SNOWTOWN is based on a real life killing spree in Southern Australia, in a run-down, violent (mentally, physically, sexually) and unforgiving suburb, where family can be the biggest enemy of all, and neighbours the most unlikely of friends. But friendships here do exist and flourish, and good things and times are born of emptiness, and nothingness. But to suggest this is what the people living in this forgotten place wish for, above escape, is probably patronising, even if ever true. Most people we meet here, living in these crumbling, ramshackle, asbestos-tiled, neon street lamp-lit homes, want a way out.
A man called John Bunting, a stranger in town, was, for some - that long awaited way out. It was, for all who signed up to this one man’s get out of jail free card-calling, the biggest mistake they would ever make in their lives. Some never lived long enough to regret that mistake. The brutal, shocking, terrible murders in Snowtown (a place where many of the victims’ bodies were taken to, and one victim was killed in, after Bunting needed more space for his hobby – a horrible thought; it’s rather like a business being expanded because the job gets too big for the previous premises to cope with all the orders) are well known in Australia (just like, if you went up to a random stranger in Britain and asked: "Do you know who Fred and Rosemary West are?" they will know).
The name 'Snowtown' is also instantly recognisable to most, and probably all, Australians for all the wrong reasons - the so-called 'bodies in the barrels' murders, some twenty years old but still fresh in the minds of so many.
The place John Bunting used in Snowtown to murder or take bodies to, for storage, was a disused bank vault. In the film, this place we get to see recreated is cold and harsh: flickeringly fluorescent-lit and full of locked doors and sealed-off exits. Dark cloth covered doorways. Sparse rooms that have just single chairs and a table to link us to the outside; to a life we can recognise. To some place we ought to be, other than in here. Because being in this place; in Snowtown, even in a movie, is hard to cope with.
John Bunting was a warm and friendly, enthused man (as portrayed in the movie at least – and by all accounts this was how John Bunting came across in real life to so many; the true secret of his success) who convinced neighbours in the housing trust homes where teenage boy James Vlassakis lives with his family, that he is the one to stick with, if you want to get out of that place; to escape to something better - even if it’s just a better place of mind. Hatred of others was just the starting brick.
Bunting married James's mother – he was a beacon of hope to her. It wasn't long before her son was convinced by Bunting to help out with the murders that this man carefully orchestrated against the local community; against the ones he didn’t like. Vlassakis, entirely taken in, killed - alongside Bunting - his own step brother and half brother. The truth eventually caught up with all those involved.
James Vlassakis is now serving consecutive terms of life imprisonment, along with ringleader John Bunting and Bunting's main helper in the crimes; his friend, Robert Wagner - a man who defended the murders in court (and the cannibalism in the case of the final victim) as being a stand against paedophiles. Only the younger Vlassakis had his image restricted from publication for his own protection, as he gave evidence against his co-accused at the trial.
The Australian produced and lensed movie Snowtown, intriguingly tells the story mainly from James Vlassakis’s point of view and was shown in an advance screening at Islington's Screen on the Green on 19th October 2011, with a Q/A with director Justin Kurzel and actor Lucas Pittaway (who played the role of teenager James Vlassakis – a boy whose life changes forever when, aged just 14, a man called John Bunting turns up and starts that fateful relationship with his mother). The Q/A was moderated by film critic and historian Kim Newman, our host for the night.
There's no doubt that Snowtown is a harsh, depressing, brutal movie. There are scenes of cruelty to animals (animals are portrayed as either victims or predators - in the case of a snake; a moment that made me jump more than any other scene in the movie). There is the disclaimer at the end of the film that states no animals were harmed, but still - it's upsetting stuff. Bunting gets James to shoot dead his - Bunting’s - own dog, telling the boy to "go ahead", that it’s alright, that the dog means nothing to him: a man absolutely cold, callous – absolutely crazed. But it’s a scratch beneath a polished outside surface. More than a scratch – a whole, heaving, twisted furnace of bile and hate.
John Bunting is still somehow the kind of man who everyone wants to like - to be part of his gang, so to speak. He's warm, friendly, always smiling - but a fake, quite horrible smile, used well by actor Daniel Henshall in a quite deliciously manipulative way. It’s a fabulously rich portrayal of a cold-hearted killer. The film would not have worked if Bunting had not been portrayed convincingly as that seemingly all-round nice guy. Henshall's portrayal of one of the worst serial killers in Australian history, is, without doubt, pitch perfect. In a housing trust community of distrust and suspicion, Bunting made people believe that he represented a way out. He was there to sort out the community once and for all. He convinced others that the way to do this was to get rid of anyone who was either gay or a suspected paedophile; he aroused suspicion inside the community of people that he didn’t like. He developed a so-called 'rock spider wall' on his bedroom wall; a perfectly detailed map where he thought the gays or paedophiles in the area lived. Rock spider is a slang term, it seems, for paedophiles. Like I said, this film ain't exactly cosy. It's almost unbelievable that such hatred and persecution exists in a modern world; but it does - and John Bunting is proof.
Many in the local community were taken in by him. As was the woman he married; Elizabeth Harvey, a single mother living in absolute poverty, looking for a glimmer of hope - finding it with the wrong man. Yes, Bunting's Mr Perfect and a great cook too. In the movie, this is shown through a really smart kind of directing; focusing on the fact that, when not killing - Bunting is cooking. The food on the plate is always quite nasty looking, despite everyone around the table thinking how amazing everything he cooks probably is, and how good it is to have fry-ups every morning from this really good bloke that’s suddenly walked into their lives. But Bunting has a plan in motion, and he targets Elizabeth's son as his first trophy.
Like a snake to its live prey, he reaches out, back straight – and strikes. Louise Harris plays the role of mother and wife Elizabeth Harvey and is fantastic; conveying a realistic sense of hopelessness and quiet, head-down acceptance. Harvey died of cancer shortly after the arrests of those involved; including that of her own son. The film is enthralling, perhaps because it is so traumatic and astounding that this actually happened. It's enthralling in a mostly negative way. The murders are not glorified. They are brutal, but shown rarely. The sexual abuse of James Vlassakis from his own half brother, depicted in fairly graphically - if not at all explicitly - shot rape, is hard to watch. Very hard to watch. The murders are cold and nasty, but not dwelled on to the extent they could be. Some of the instruments of torture used by serial killer Bunting are shocking just to read about. The explicitness of the murders is not really shown, but it's still numbing to witness when it happens.
Rather like last year's 'A Serbian Film' horrified British censors – I thought I may now be witnessing the all-new 'An Australian Film'. But I don’t think so. This film isn’t really exploitative; if anything, it holds back.
There’s no doubt that this film will certainly divide audience-goers – shock and anger some too. But others, with knowledge of what really happened and what Bunting and his followers did, will think the movie doesn't go far enough to witness the brutal reality of what happened. In fact, you often feel sorry for James Vlassakis in the film. The script and improvisation allows this; occasionally welcomes it.
Sometimes the fine line between reality and fiction is the best defence possible. I wonder if convicted serial killers the world over must welcome announcements that a new film has been made about their lives, especially if the film results in some new found sympathy of sorts; or at least a flicker of humanising the demon portrayed in the press. And here, in Snowtown, a certain sympathy is clear - and for Vlassakis, the crimes the boy participates in at first, are shown to be still horrific to him.
At the end of the movie, his eyes are less furtive and scared – they stare straight ahead as another victim is led to Bunting’s hideaway slaughterhouse. There is no change of mind here. No ledge on the precipice for a victim to cling to. Are we - the audience - being manipulated by the director, in the same way (kind of) that Bunting himself manipulated those he spoke to? Are we asked, urged – persuaded, to see events through sympathetic eyes? Can a film become a kind of witness for the defence?
I certainly came out of the movie thinking Vlassakis was a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. But whether that was actually true in real life, I have no idea at all. While Snowtown has a strong cast, an impressive point-of-view direction and an excellent soundtrack, it's a little overlong and would play much better if edited by, say - twenty minutes. Although, the long, slow, languid pace does cultivate a sense of unease and desperation - if not a rush for the toilets when the end credits play. And funnily enough, during the Q/A, our young star, Lucas Pittaway, at a convenient moment, does rush to the toilets at the left of the stage, having first gone in the wrong direction to find them!
I warm to Lucas Pittaway who plays James Vlassakis, a great deal throughout the lengthy post-screening chat. He comes across as a very amiable, smart and sincere young actor. You know that antique expression – ‘a breath of fresh air’. But really, he is. I hope - I'd like to predict – that Lucas will go on to become a very big star indeed. His performance in Snowtown is fresh, raw and hauntingly real - and if there is any justice in the world, it will earn him a big fat Oscar nomination. Let's wait and see - so far, this is Lucas’s only movie role. But I’m sure there will be many more.
Lucas tells us, from the glare of the stage, that he actually hails from the area where the killings took place. We get to hear from both him and director Justin Kerzel, that the reaction back home has been rather mixed and approached with some caution from those who still live local to the crimes. Some talked to the crew about how they knew Bunting – I’m sure I heard Kerzel say that one family told him they had used Bunting as their babysitter. Of course, the area is now famous for visits from ghoul-hunters, looking for snapshots of Snowtown and the surrounding area. At one point, there was even the possibility of the name of the town being changed. But unlike the restriction on the image and identity of James Vlassakis, this never happened.
Director Kerzel is asked by Kim Newman about the level of violence in the movie. Kerzel replies that he never set out to make a horror movie or a slasher - isn't really interested in "those kind" of movies but he did have to include some graphic content to make the film work, even if it's never really focused on too much - had to make clear (or even just imply) to audiences that the killings were so horrendous and brutal (far more so than we would get to see). In fact, much of the horror comes from the tape recordings that Bunting forced his victims to make - to say they would be going away for a while or leaving town. These calls; these messages from the dead, were left on the answerphones of loved ones.
While the film could be said to rest in a pit of misery, and unrelenting realism, there’s a certain escape to be had in the soundtrack from Jed Kerzel (brother of director Justin). It's fabulous; inventive, dark and brooding. In a way, it breaks up the relentless misery (in the same way the glorious, thumping soundtrack of A Serbian Film also, perhaps deliberately, reduced the horror and realism through the use of a killer soundtrack). Sure - it's music that plays out ominously, like a frightened heartbeat (there’s no Tarantino-style jukebox classics to offset or frame the violence, to be found here) but it's a broody lifeline, of sorts; to allow escape from a place where silence would be unbearable.
The soundtrack also - I'm sure - uses subliminal sound tricks, such as the creaking of an old rocking chair; quite an evil kind of sound that feels like it shouldn’t be there. That puts you on edge and unnerves you slowly with its unrelenting use in the near background for a while. Or is that sound the stretching of audio and video tape reel? The end of an answerphone message? The tape reel or the VHS player squeaking through overuse? Maybe the creaking chair fear was just me, and everyone around me is thinking something different. It's very unnerving, it’s an unexpected, subtle sound that makes you look around the cinema, wondering who on earth is making that noise; who is rocking back and forth like that? Who is the potential lunatic killer lurking in the darkness, posing as a film fan, driven to distraction by a violent movie? Is this exactly what the British film censor fears about movies such as this? But the sounds are all around suddenly. They are only part of the movie. Which doesn’t make it that much better, as the sounds continue, then fade.
The cast – first time actors and non-actors alike - are praised by the director tonight. They were all allowed to improvise (and they do so, very well) and the script itself was altered as the movie was shot; adapting to how cast and crew felt at the time. Both director and star tell us that the atmosphere on set was quite intense, but friendship and developing relationships got them through the hardest times - especially the shooting of the first killing where we get to see Vlassakis sucked into the moment; taking part in - and doing - the killing. It’s a brutal moment or two; heart-breaking, horrific and overwhelmingly intense. A scene that, if you've ever watched Stephen King's Misery with Kathy Bates, allows the film its own 'Misery moment' but with a toenail rather than a foot - but it’s much worse a thing to witness than Kathy Bates with a sledgehammer, as this is killing and torture based on real life. It’s a scene that I hear has prompted some of the walkouts at certain screenings; including a few at this event that Kim Newman - our host tonight – mentions at the Q/A. Being sat at the front, I had no idea. Although when I looked around behind me; the audience was less than it had been at the start.
Perhaps that explains the sound of creaking chairs - was it people walking out in horror? Outrage? A need to rush to the toilets as we approached the two hour mark? The director tells us that the cast were all fine working with the darker material and harrowing scenes; they all supported each other - and were looked after well. But Lucas tells us that personally he wanted to ask the director if he could leave the movie at that first - and actually pretty much only fully shown - murder. We all laugh. Director Kurzel, a quite charismatically rugged man, doesn't. He says to Lucas: "We wouldn't have let you leave" - I think he wasn't joking. Lucas then tells us of the moment where he has his head bashed against a car window by actor Daniel Henshall who played Bunting, and tells us that it really hurt. The director laughs this off, and says that it couldn't have done. Lucas turns to us and nods his head, as if to mime the fact that 'yes it bloody well did'! The director then admits that Henshall may not have been aware that the safety screens on the car were fitted, but that the scene was a very powerful and pivotal one. Painful too it seems.
SNOWTOWN is a film that proves that the Australian film industry isn't all Crocodile Dundee, or even all Picnic at Hanging Rock ('Picnic' is still one of my favourite films, making perfect use of the rugged Australian landscape - probably one of the most beautiful and eerie movies ever made) but can be 'tough but with a sense of humour' (humour to be found somewhere under the far harsher surface): films such as Romper Stomper (the one with Russell Crowe starring as a Nazi skinhead) are mentioned on stage.
I'm already a huge fan of the Australian horror movie, from classics such as Razorback (about a giant killer pig escaping the horror of the local slaughterhouse by rampaging across the outback - much more fun than it sounds!) and 2007's fabulous, beautifully shot Rogue (killer crocodile terrorises Northern Territory). Or films that catch the beauty of the Australian outback; such as the British movie Walkabout (1971). But it's refreshing to see a film that doesn't glamorise location; the homes of those living in and around Snowtown escaping any picture-postcard portrayal. Kurzel does a fantastic job of conveying a certain beauty in occasional squalor or ordinariness - a sunset-lit suburban wonderland, where only some of the people make the present moment and community spirit, taste bad.
Although the events shown in Snowtown are set some twenty years back (Kim Newman mentions the retro sighting of a VHS player - although the director states that he only really used evidence of period setting very sparsely) the movie is still made to feel relevant and of importance to a modern day audience. There is no feeling of a historical crime being played out for our amusement.
This could be any place, any time, any day. It's as much a comment on lives led in poverty today as it is a document of lives led in poverty back then - crowded in and with lives falling apart, sometimes the only way out, is to look for a way to leave. In the middle of all this there is hope. I like to think that the oddly-placed, random shot of an ice cream van pulling up outside the battered homes without a care in the world represents this hope; a happy ditty announcing the van’s arrival perhaps an announcement in kind, of that hope. It’s tarnished by John Bunting, who, on seeing the ice cream van, buys as many ice creams as he can - and hands them out to the local children. Not to eat - to throw at the home of a suspected gay man and to paint insulting slogans across the man’s dust-covered windows; the first use of ice cream graffiti in a movie I've ever seen. It could be funny. But then it isn't. As director Justin Kurzel said earlier about some Australian movies: "tough" but with an undercurrent "of humour". He’s not wrong.
Lucas Pittaway is asked at the Q/A whether his portrayal of the fated life of James Vlassakis was researched by meeting any of those involved in the case. He tells us that this wouldn't have been allowed - access would have been restricted to Vlassakis anyway, but he wasn't sure if he would have done so even if it had been possible: "I just looked the case up on Wikipedia" he tells us, to much laughter. You know - I really like this young star. I really do.
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer