Writer/director Roger Scott’s slasher/survival horror picture The Marshes tells of three university researchers – Pria (Dafna Kronental), Ben (Mathew Cooper) and Will (Sam Delich) – who set out on a trip to collect field samples from a remote area of marshland. They arrive at their campsite, after encountering an aggressive local en-route, and Ben regales the party with a ghost story concerning the ‘Jolly Swagman’ in the erstwhile Aussie classic Waltzing Matilda. Turns out, he’s not as ‘jolly’ as you might think.
During the course of the next few days, Pria is plagued by violent dreams and while exploring the marshes, is unnerved by sounds in the undergrowth. As the noises are just on the periphery of her hearing, she can’t be sure if they are real. However, it soon becomes apparent that the group is being stalked across the countryside by a giant, hellish Swagman.
The Australian outback is prime real estate for horror, and domestic shockers have long turned to the foreboding and unforgiving countryside as a key ingredient for terror. Unfortunately for The Marshes, although it is exquisitely shot, it’s more concerned with the landscape than the people inhabiting it.
Unfortunately, the film struggles to create the necessary horror elements, so tension, suspense and even an imaginative kill sequence are all absent.
The Marshes is a strange bundle of ideas and influences. On the one hand, it chalks off the clichés: Offensive local who doesn’t like big city folk? Check. Mobile phone out of range? Check. Getting lost in the countryside and wandering in circles? Check. On the other hand, it takes a bold approach in integrating surreal dream sequences that mess with audience perceptions. That most of the action takes place in broad daylight is also an impressive challenge to the standard bad-things-happen-at-night staple.
But The Marshes also struggles with its pacing. The first thirty minutes feel like they should be condensed into the opening fifteen. We don’t even establish the Swagman legend until long after they settle at camp, meaning the precious quiet-before-the-storm period that could have served to unnerve us, or portend future disaster, is largely wasted. It’s not long before clock watching sets in.
The trailer promises us rural killer thrills in the vein of Wolf Creek or The Hills Have Eyes, but the result is something far more pedestrian. The Swagman appears to be blended from I Know What You Did Last Summer’s homicidal fisherman and the deranged fatso in Alexandre Aja’s High Tension. However, we never get a proper look at him – we only get tight close-ups so he is out of frame, or aerial views of his shambling gait. Perhaps it’s to suggest he may not be real, but it’s just not clear enough. While psychological or ambiguous elements serve many horror movies well, in The Marshes it only frustrates. When we’re approaching the latter stage without a good reveal, it feels like a bit of a cheat.
What makes it such a shame is that otherwise there are the makings of a good movie here. The performances are all excellent. Kronental, Cooper and Delich manage to make their characters sympathetic, and more than just expendable slasher-movie dimwits. Giovanni Lorusso’s cinematography is also very impressive, taking in panoramic views of the marshland and the thickets of grass and reeds in which the trio take refuge. Additionally, the action is interspersed with some interesting time-lapse visuals of insects, bacteria and rot, which look good, although have little relevance beyond a recurring motif.
It’s no fun having to knock a home-grown horror movie, particularly when everything pointed in the direction of this being a great low-key slice and dice, but try as it might, The Marshes is all set up and no payoff.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10
‘The Marshes’ will be screening at Sydney’s A Night of Horror International Film Festival 2017.