Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review: Van Diemen's Land

Van Diemen's Land
Dir. Jonathan Auf Der Heide
Year: 2009
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 104mins

"Arthouse Horror Porn" (wank-fest), noun, 1. A variety of horror films targeted at the arthouse crowd that allows them the visceral thrill of watching people die in gruesome ways while also providing them with the minimal dialogue, long tracking shots and artful cinematography that they crave, allowing them to nod their head in approval and extol such lines as "yes, it's a film about the human condition" while they simultaneously look down on those who prefer horror films to actually be scary, thrilling and/or fun. 2. A sub-genre of film that allows filmmakers to indulge in gore and violence while masquerading behind a wall of pretentiousness and wankery.

3. Jonathan Auf Der Heide's Van Diemen's Land.

Set during the times of Australia's colonisation, Van Diemen's Land is set in the titular island off the south-west coast of Australia (nowadays called Tasmania) and follows the confessions of Alexander Pearce, a convict who was convicted of murder and cannibalism and hanged in 1824. He and seven other prisoners escaped their Penal Settlement and trekked their way through the Tasmanian wilderness before eventually turning to eating each other to fend off hunger.

Curiously, the story of Alexander Pearce was used as the basis of the dire horror film Dying Breed less than a year ago as well as the TV film The Confessions of Alexander Pearce from earlier this year. I have not seen the latter, but while Van Diemen's Land is much better than Dying Breed it gets nowhere close to being a good movie. It starts out promisingly enough, but soon descends into a dull, tedious mess. Van Diemen's Land is pretentiousness of the highest order.

The film is competently made from a technical standpoint, that's for sure. The cinematography by Ellery Ryan is gorgeous, yes, but filled with shots of things like the sky and trees blowing in the wind. It works here most of the time, until it becomes apparent that they're being thrown in at anytime when the story has nowhere to go. It is filmed in an almost monochrome style punctuated occasionally by the rich green forestry of Tasmania. Sound design and sound editing are also noteworthy, especially the oft-gruesome scenes of munching, biting and chewing. Grisly stuff, there. Performances run from hot to cold though with Mark Leonard Winter and Torquil Neilson proving to be best in show. As Alexander Pearce, Oscar Redding is transparent. Sure, you could say it is the character, but nothing Redding does on screen registers one iota.

The first half of Van Diemen's Land is actually quite good, however, once the nasty stuff begins, it shifts gears and all the tension that had been built comes crushing down. All the best characters either get eaten or simply walk off screen never to return. The atmosphere morphs into boredom as the numbers on screen dwindle and the interactions between them go with it. Dialogue becomes almost non-existent and the only intrigue - who's going to die next - is hindered by the fact that these characters are all deathly dull with no interesting aspects to them at all. Something could have been made out of the Pearce tale that really took a look at the madness that can form in situations as horrific as these, but Van Diemen's Land is not it. To take a pun from Pearce's nickname of "The Pieman", Van Diemen's Land is like a soggy meat pie. It's got the right ingredients, but by this stage it's no good to anyone and you may as well throw it out. C-


Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree. A decent short student film stretched into one almighty mess. The poster is the best thing about it.

par3182 said...

i saw the trailer for this before the september issue and was sure it was going to be one of those dreadful overproduced wine or tourism ads

imagine my surprise...

Glenn Dunks said...

See I was really in the mood for a dark and moody horror film, but it's hardly a "horror" movie at all, and the "mood" is not one of creepiness and suspense but of static and nothingness.