Saturday, 4 December 2010

Dying Breed (2008)


Let me tell you a little bit about Alexander Pearce. He was an Irish convict who was shipped off to a penal colony in Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania. He escaped, and when he was captured he claimed he had cannibalised his fellow escapees. They didn't believe him, but when he escaped for a second time he was recaptured with bits of his partner-in-crime in his pocket, even though he still had food with him. He was subsequently convicted of murder and cannibalism, and was hanged. It's good story with the makings of a good movie. Unfortunately that movie is the 2009 thriller Van Diemen's Land, and not the subject of this review, the 2008 backwood cannibal film Dying Breed.

As well as exploiting this historical nugget and every offensive stereotype about Tasmanians you can think of, the film also incorporates another famous Tasmanian icon, the Tasmanian tiger. Although thought to be extinct (the movie begins with some real-life footage of the last of it's kind in captivity) zoologist Nina (Mirrah Foulkes) believes she has found photographic proof that the thylocine still exists. These photographs come courtesy of her sister, who turned up dead shortly after her discovery. Unable to secure funding, Nina arranges an unofficial expedition with her boyfriend Matt (Leigh Whannel, one of the Saw guys), his best friend Jack (Nathan Phillips from Wolf Creek) and Jack's girlfriend Rebecca (Melanie Vallejo).

Their trip leads them to an isolated township populated by the "descendants" of Alexander Pearce (not sure how that would work exactly, the guy was in a penal colony) aka The Pieman. After some uncomfortable interactions wth the locals in the pub (I always like these kinds of scenes; walking into a pub full of creepy old weirdos is an awkward experience we can all relate to) and a sampling of their delicious meat pies, they set out on a wildly underprepared trip into the wilderness. Soon they find themselves stalked by a mysterious figure, cannibalism etc, etc.

There's a few interesting ideas here, but most of them don't really go anywhere. The Tasmanian Tiger, for instance, is just a MacGuffin to get them to into the wilderness, and the whole Alexander Pearce connection is little more than window dressing. I was hoping that the interesting location might have brought a few fresh new ideas to a subgenre that has been done in every possible permutation, but unfortunately most of the film seems to be going down a checklist of modern horror: they've got the creepy little girl who sings nursery rhymes, the over-edited, jump-scare nightmare sequences, even a little bit of torture porn. If you guessed that one of them pulls out their mobile phone at one point and pointedly declares that there is no cell phone coverage, give yourself a prize.

The film does have a few things working in it's favour though. Like many Australian genre films there is a lot of gorgeous cinematography, and the rainforest setting gives it a slightly different feel than your typical backwoods cannibal film. There was one part with a half-eaten body hanging from the tree that looked like something out of Cannibal Holocaust. Although it's not as gory as that film it does have it's moments, including an impressively nasty bit where somebody gets their nose bitten off. Not enough nose-bitings in films, I say. Plus I liked the bit where Rebecca follows a strange noise only to discover a woman euthanising a litter of unwanted puppies with a hammer. That's the kind of fucked-up-yet-believable behaviour I want from my Tasweigan nutbars.

Given the film's genre and casting, you can't help but draw comparison to Wolf Creek, which is unfortunate because in my opinion it doesn't really stack up. Wolf Creek was a film that I liked more than a lot of people, and one of the things I liked most about it was that the main characters were pretty believable and likeable. Unfortunately that's not so much the case here: Jack is such an unrepentant asshole and Matt is so spineless that you wind up hating them both. It does differentiate itself from Wolf Creek in that it's a little sillier and not quite as bleak and serious, but then it doesn't have much of a sense of fun about it either. It has a downer ending followed by a controversy-baiting title card similar to Wolf Creek's, which states: "Since Alexander Pearce escaped, over 250 people have disappeared in the Tasmanian wilderness. No remains have ever been found." Well, I guess that's technically true.

I've really liked some recent Australian horror films, like Rogue and Wolf Creek. They have great production values, intelligent exeuction and make the most of their interesting settings. I was hoping that this one would be similar, but although competently made it doesn't have enough to separate from it's Hollywood-produced brethren. I think it flopped pretty badly in the Australian cinemas, which is unfortunate but not entirely unexpected. Australians are pretty weird about home-grown b-movies, turning out in droves to see the latest terrible Saw sequel but being endlessly critical towards any local genre film, but then I can't really judge because I didn't see it in the cinema either.

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