Writer/director Roger Scott’s shocker The Marshes is sometimes as dizzying as the predicaments in which its environmental researcher protagonists find themselves. This Australian offering serves up supernatural, slasher, and survival horror elements, and also adds a bit of surrealism, as well.
University researchers Doctor Pria Anan (Dafna Kronental), Ben (Mathew Cooper) and Will (Sam Delich) head to a remote marshland area to collect field samples. They are hassled by local pig hunters, which sets the tone for at least one kind of possible threat to the trio.
The marshland depicted here is not a welcoming place. Bugs are ever-present, buzzing around the group and landing on the member’s faces. That becomes the least of the trio’s worries, however, as sounds just barely in earshot and troubling dreams plague the researchers before they are confronted by the deadly, otherworldly presence that butchers those who venture to this area.
Potential viewers not already familiar with the classic Australian song “Waltzing Matilda” should still be able to catch the basic drifts of the set-up for The Marshes, but a few minutes of research into the lyrics and the history of the piece will make things clearer. I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible here, but the main character of “Waltzing Matilda” — a swagman (itinerant worker) who captures a stray sheep to eat and then drowns himself when pursued by a landowner and police, returning as a ghost to haunt the site — is the jumping-off point for the film’s villain.
Scott’s subgenre-blending approach to The Marshes is an engaging, if sometimes puzzling, one. The raw grittiness of such survival slashers as Wolf Creek (2005) meshes with the vertiginous, otherworldly mysteries reminiscent of films like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). These wetlands are a perfect place for characters to become disoriented and lost, and the haunting dream sequences are effective rather than being mere tropes; however, some time-lapse visuals of biological entities remain puzzling regarding their intent.
The cast is terrific, with leads Kronental, Cooper, and Delich inhabiting characters that Scott has fully developed as sympathetic, engaging protagonists. The supporting cast is also solid, including Eddie Baroo as the hulking, lumbering baddie, and Zac Drayson as a poacher.
Although The Marshes takes some time during the first act to set up the threat of danger and, therefore, tension and terror, Scott builds the suspense and the mystical elements soundly during the second and third acts. Much of the pursuit and peril take place in bright daylight, with Giovanni Larusso’s cinematography capturing the haunting beauty of the marshlands and the horrifying occurrences therein splendidly. Nigel Christensen’s sound design and Tristan Coelho’s score both add to the eeriness and uncanniness of the film.
The Marshes flirts with being folk horror, having its cultural roots in a song penned in the last years of the 19th century and being set far from the nearest inhabited area. It certainly qualifies as local-color horror, and boasts colloquial language, including during the initial “Waltzing Matilda” campfire scene set-up. It’s a bold slice of cinema that deserves to find an international audience, and is well worth seeking out as it begins its film festival run.
The Marshes screened at the A Night of Horror and Fantastic Planet film festivals, held November 29–December 3 in Sydney, Australia.