Acolytes: Past and Present will be Unburied

Whenever I notice a film in one of the many shops I frequent, independent award nominations and award winners always catch my eye. Acolytes, a 2008 Australian film directed by Jon Hewitt, was one such obscurity that caught my attention. Upon feasting on this random title, my curious expectations were far from disappointed when this layered horror-thriller kept me on the edge of my seat with an unexpected level of intensity. Winning three awards and earning 2 nominations under a few specific categories, it is clear this nail-biting suspense has a few things going for it. This includes well-written and acted parts, cinematography and an uncommon approach towards background music and audio. All of these aspects are cleverly used in a way that is rare to find in most films within this subgenre.

Opening with a gritty and intense chase scene, Acolytes catches your attention with a seemly-brutalized young woman running through the woods. What or whom she is running from is unclear until she suddenly stops with a look of confusion. An odd calm sets into the air as a butterfly catches the girl’s attention. This is briefly lived when, without warning, a muscle car roars into the scene knocking the girl unconscious.

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Transitioning scenes to introduce three teenagers, Mark (Sebastian Gregory), James (Joshua Payne) and Chasely (Hanna Mangan Lawrence), a missing person’s poster is spotted by the trio while walking down the street. Engulfed in their discussion concerning the missing person, their conversation is interrupted by the roar of a muscle car engine. This startles the two boys and it is revealed that Mark and James have a history with a muscle car driving bully and parolee named Gary Parker (Michael Dorman).

With the blend of a suburban lowlife and a twisted perversive backwoods personality, Parker matches the cinematography landscape perfectly as it reflects the varying scenery blend. Appearing to be a gear head, Parker is also a hunter with a crossbow aim that would make Daryl Dixon of The Walking Dead jealous. Obviously, due to his background, this parolee is the number one suspect in the missing person’s case. Further dark intertwining pasts are hinted throughout the film involving Parker in dark flashbacks that become a bit repetitive. Though these scenes may be a little overdone, they do serve their purpose assisting with the revelation of the ugly truth.

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As the plot thickens, Mark witnessing a man burying something or someone deep in the woods. Keeping quiet and his distance, Mark is able to see the vehicle the mysterious man is driving. When the trio returns to the burying site, shovels in hand, they are unprepared for what they are about to unearth. When a corpse is revealed after digging deep into the earth, Chasely unleashes a scream that should have won Lawrence a place among the scream queens.

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Tracking down the home of the man Mark witnessed burying the body, the teenage boys piece together the identity of Ian Wright: a family man who moonlights as a serial killer. Portrayed by Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty, Black Mass), Wright has never made it onto the law enforcement radar. Mark and James use this to their advantage as they seek revenge by blackmailing this family man into killing Parker. However, as the story steadily unravels, it becomes clear that things are not exactly what they seem.

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With such a young cast complimenting each other’s part, there is just enough substance to intrigue and captivate without prematurely revealing plot twists. Character depth becomes a little complicated with a young love triangle among the three close friends. Gregory plays the third wheel outcast with a crush to perfection. In return, Payne equally portrays the friend who passively outdoes his competition for the girl’s affection. Stuck between the two, but gravitating towards James, Chasely seems to soak up the attention from both guys. Lawrence does an outstanding job with this, portraying a girl caught up in the throws of confusing teenage years. Where many mainstream horror films tend to gravitate towards tackily objectifying their young casts, Acolytes chooses substance by sympathizing with the real life rebellious nature of teenage years.

As an antagonist of the film, Dorman brings to life the rough backwoods personality of Parker who barely shows a hint of remorse for his trespasses. It is also very apparent that this character is not a smooth calculated individual. He is merely a creature of impulse, which serves as a key element to the plot. This is in complete contrast to Edgerton’s character that is a calm and careful with little appreciation for amateurs. Typically known for action-drama films,  this is an unusual role for Edgerton. However, the renowned actor flawlessly pulls off the family man with a passionately twisted, secret life.

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What I found to enhance the intensity of Acolytes is the film’s use of a gritty blend of suburban and backwoods life portrayed in the cinematography as well as various abrupt scene transitions. Executing these filmmaking techniques in such a strategic way while favoring sound effects over background music, Acolytes repeatedly gives you a sense of calm curiosity before catapulting you into the surprising opposite direction. This seemingly brings you closer to the characters drawing you further into the film while allowing you to see and feel the surrounding suspense on a deeper level.

Final Thoughts

While this film may not be an Oscar-winning home run, it is an overlooked foreign obscurity well deserving of recognition. With an intriguing story and a clever plot, this film features great performances, well-written characters as well as unique techniques in cinematography and audio effects. Due to this title missing the limelight, you may have to do some digging to find it. However, you will not be disappointed with what you uncover.

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2 comments

  1. A movie that slipped under my radar, shall be searching for it after reading your review Brandon

    • Thank you, Diane. I’m glad I can bring attention to smaller films that deserve recognition, such as this one.