Reviewed by Serena Whitney
Starring Sebastian Gregory, Joshua Payne, Hannah Morgan Lawrence, Michael Dorman, Joel Edgerton
Directed by Jon Hewitt
Since general audiences everywhere were terrorized by the Australian horror film Wolf Creek a few years ago, audiences have been itching for another chilling venture into the Outback. Director Jon Hewitt does just that with his long overdue horror outing, Acolytes.
Acolytes starts out with three young teenagers named Mark (Gregory), James (Payne) and Chasely (Lawrence) hanging out after school. Leaving Chasely and James to fool around, Mark journeys into the woods and discovers a man burying something in the ground. When the three start snooping around and find out what the man was hiding, they realize they have just stumbled upon a serial killer’s hunting ground. Instead of going straight to the police with the evidence they’ve uncovered, Mark and James decide to blackmail the serial killer into killing the man (Dorman) who committed a horrible crime against the two boys years ago. Needless to say, all does not go as planned.
Jon Hewitt delivers a film that is not your typical “stalk and chase” horror fare. The first half of Acolytes is atmospherically dense, full of suspense and effective boo scares guaranteed to make everyone jump out of their seats. The story focuses on the three leads, and we are witness to them making horrible decisions and are forced to watch them suffer from the consequences of their actions. In a way, the first 45 minutes reminded me of the first strong act of Jeepers Creepers, mainly because the decision the teens make to blackmail the serial killer isn’t unrealistic, just like the decision Justin Long’s character made by going back to help the already doomed victim left in the tunnel in Jeepers Creepers. I could understand why the boys did it, and because they’re young, it makes sense that they wouldn’t understand how easy it is for the killer to turn the tables and target them.
The second half of Acolytes evolves into a far more complex thriller. The three teens turn into supporting characters while the killer (Edgerton) steps out from the shadows and takes the spotlight, and from then on he drives the story forward. Though seeing the movie not play out like an archetypal slasher film may disappoint some viewers, I welcomed this unforeseen plot development. Watching from the killer’s perspective humanized his character, which was a refreshing change from the countless one-dimensional villains viewers see in horror nowadays. Hewitt and screenwriters Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause create a significant sense of dread, and because of the moral crossover halfway in, it was nearly impossible to predict how it would end.
Also, following in the footsteps of notorious filmmaker Larry Clark, Hewitt makes the difficult decision of casting real-life teenagers for the roles of the troubled leads. Although this decision is bound to cause some controversy, it’s a genius move on the director’s part. Casting real teenagers rather than 20- or 30-something actors made the grim depiction of teenage sex and drug using far more effective. It was good to see a film demystify the popular sex and drug culture amongst teenagers for a change. All three newcomers gave competent performances and were thankfully not forced to spout out clever and witty Kevin Williamson-inspired soliloquies. They all acted, talked and looked like real teenagers, which is something amazingly rare in horror films today.
On the downside Acolytes had some major pacing issues that were hard to ignore. The first half dragged, and it took a little too long to get the ball rolling. Certain subplots were also given far too much attention, probably due to the fact that the filmmakers wanted to give the experienced actors (Edgerton and Dorman) more screen time.
Although I loved the idea of making the teen protagonists like “real” teenagers, many other viewers will not be able to identify with or care for the characters because of their annoying and ultimately destructive behavior traits.
Despite its flaws, Acolytes is still a solid horror film and an excellent character study. It’s complex and contains far more than meets the eye, but giving away any more will definitely ruin the twists and turns it provides. Fans of Aussie horror will not be disappointed with Acolytes; it’s a suspenseful, unnerving and vicarious film destined to be talked about for years to come.
4 out of 5
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