Given a choice between an Australian film and pretty much anything else at a genre-intensive film festival ... I'm choosing the Aussie flick. From my earliest days as a movie freak, I knew that the far-away and magical land of Australia produced movies like The Road Warrior, Razorback, Road Games, and Patrick, and that was enough to make me a lifelong fan. In recent years the land down under has unleashed horrors as varied as Wolf Creek, Undead, Rogue, Storm Warning, Black Water, The Loved Ones, The Horseman, and a little indie called Saw. Needless to say ... I'm a big fan of the Aussies.
So it was with no small sense of anticipation that I sat down with Patrick Hughes' Red Hill, a rather strong genre film that capably combines old-school western intensity with a more modern approach to violence. It's a simple film, and an unexpectedly excellent one as well.
Young constable Shane Cooper has just transferred from the big city to the minuscule village known as Red Hill, and while he expects his new job to be real police work ... poor Shane has no idea what he's in for at his first day on the job. After butting heads with the sheriff and being hazed by some of the older cops, the serious stuff begins: seems that a horribly efficient killer has recently escaped from a nearby prison, and he's heading straight for Red Hill to wage war against the entire police department. The fact that tough, armed, Australian men are visibly afraid of Jimmy Conway's inevitable arrival is enough to get Shane worried. Of course the vengeful maniac enters the town through the one small road that poor Shane is guarding...
Thus begins an "all in one night" crime thriller that's equal parts old-school western and grimly intelligent horror film. Director Hughes approaches his genre mixture with a good deal of confidence, backing his action with a fantastic Dmitri Glovko score and a cut-to-the-bone editorial style that keeps the movie breezing by at an appreciably rapid clip. Tim Hudson's incongruously gorgeous cinematography does a fine job of making the landscapes both beautiful and effortlessly unforgiving; the screenplay avoids cliche and convention whenever it can; and the three leads are really quite excellent: Ryan Kwanten creates a "new guy" who is instantly worthy of empathy, and the actor has no problem selling us his slow journey from clueless to heroic. Equally magnetic is the support work of Steve Bisley as a commanding old police chief and Tommy Lewis as the no-nonsense killing machine.
If Red Hill stumbles just a touch towards act III (there's a disappointing chunk of unnecessary "backstory" that feels compelled to make itself known, and a subplot involving a panther that threatens to get a little silly), that's a minor complaint in the face of such a tight-fisted, well-lensed, and admirably intense little crime thriller. If Hughes' goal was to write a valentine that he could send to both John Ford and John Carpenter, then I say he's succeeded quite well.
Australian filmmakers are so damn good at the creepy stuff that I'm now willing to forgive them for Crocodle Dundee after all these years. (But not the sequels.)