Horror Down Under: BOYS IN THE TREES (2016)
Welcome to the 6th edition of Horror Down Under, a column series in which I review horror films from my home country of Australia. The purpose of this column will be that it will act as a showcase for various horror related film projects that have been made Australia in hopes that it will get you interested in checking them out for yourself. I’ll be reviewing a wide range of Aussie horror films of various quality from the excellent to the terrible, the all time classics to the latest releases to the completely forgotten, etc. For this 6th edition, I take a look at the ’90s set Halloween themed fantasy horror/drama BOYS IN THE TREES…
SCRIPT: Nicholas Verso
CAST: Toby Wallace, Gulliver McGrath, Mitzi Ruhlmann, Justin Holborow, Trevor Jamieson.
PLOT: It’s Halloween 1997 – the last night of high school for Corey, Jango and their skater gang, The Gromits. Childhood is over and adult life beckons. But for Corey, his past has some unfinished business. When he encounters Jonah, a former childhood friend but now victimised by Jango’s cruel streak, Corey takes pity on him and agrees to walk him home for old time’s sake. What starts off as a normal walk through empty suburban streets descends into something darker and magical as they tell each other ghost stories, drawing upon their fears of the world around them. But on the night of the grave’s delight, even the most buried truths will find a way of coming to life.
Ah, Halloween. There’s definitely no question that for many of us horror fans, this is one of our favourite times of the year. Whether it is spending most of October watching nothing but horror films or enjoying the festivities of the season with family and friends, it’s a chance for us all to celebrate everything horror related in our own way for 31 days. While Halloween has been major cultural event in many parts of the world like U.S. and Europe for decades, it’s only recently that my home country of Australia has finally got around to embracing it as well. The main reason why it took us so long to do so was for the longest time, there was a negative stigma attached to it by most Australians who believed that we shouldn’t celebrate it due to the fact that it had nothing to do with Australian culture, who would ignorantly call it a quote unquote ‘American holiday’ (clearly these people didn’t know that its origins came from Britain). However despite hearing all those complaints, there were still quite a few of us who did celebrate it. When I was a kid growing up Australia during the ’90s, some of my family, friends and I would go out trick-or-treating to houses in our neighbourhood. Sure we had a few doors slammed in our faces, we still had a lot of fun doing it regardless of its negative reception. Luckily over the years that stigma has soften in Australia and it’s now celebrated like any other major event. One of my favourite things in particular about Halloween was seeing all the films that were set around the event like the HALLOWEEN series and many others. Sadly since it didn’t become big in Australia until recently, we didn’t have any Halloween themed films like those here when I was growing up. Which is what makes the fantasy horror/drama BOYS IN THE TREES special as it’s really the first major Australian film to be centred around Halloween. However despite being critically praised at both the Venice and Toronto International films in 2016, the film only had a very limited release when it came out in Australian cinemas that October. Now over the pass year, the film has slowly been developing a cult the following it by those who have seen it.
Now before I go into my thoughts on the film, I need to state two things right off the bat: 1. this is a film that’ll play even better if you go into it as blind as you possibly can (I’ll try to be as spoiler free as possible with this review of it) and 2. if you’re going into BOYS IN THE TREES expecting it to be a straight up balls-to-the-wall horror film, you’re going to be very disappointed. That’s not to say that the film isn’t a horror film at all, it definitely is one (I wouldn’t be writing about it for this column otherwise). It’s just that there is a lot more to it than that. I must admit that when I saw the film for the first time during its limited theatrical run last October, I went into it expecting it to be just a horror film based on what I saw from the trailers at the time. What I got instead was a film that was in fact a mixture of many types of genres all rolled into one: horror, fantasy, David Lynch-esque surrealism, teen high school film and coming-of-age drama. While I’m sure some horror fans weren’t happy that it wasn’t the exactly the film it was advertised but for me personally, it was right up my alley in terms of the type of genre films that I like. Plus since the film was set during 1997, it would definitely appealed on a nostalgic level since I grew up during the ’90s. After my first viewing of it last year, I was blown away by the film and I knew that I had to check it out again at some point down the road. Now having rewatched it again recently in preparation for this article, my love for BOYS IN THE TREES has grown more and more. This is an absolutely fantastic and superbly made film that’s up there as one of most ambitious productions (genre-related or otherwise) that Australia has produced recently. One of the things I love most about BOYS IN THE TREES is just how of one-of-a-kind and unique of a horror film it is. When compared to other recent genre entries that are out there at the moment, there’s nothing quite like it. This is definitely due to writer/director Nicholas Verso, who spent the pass couple of years directing short films and episodes for TV shows since making his little seen 2003 debut film MAX: A CAUTIONARY TALE.
Further expanding upon both the themes and concepts that he explored with his 2013 acclaimed award-winning short film THE LAST TIME I SAW RICHARD (if you haven’t seen it, you should check out as well since it actually kind of acts as a prequel to this film), writer/director Nicholas Verso has brilliantly crafted a horror/drama that I found to be equally creepy, riveting and powerful. While a film as ambitious as BOYS IN THE TREES is would be a pretty daunting task to any filmmaker to make but in Verso’s hands, he executes it brilliantly. It’s beautifully directed film that from the very first frame to the very last, you an tell that Verso had both a clear passion and vision for it. Every aspect of the film from the shots, score, soundtrack, production/costume design, dreamlike atmosphere and characters were meticulously thought out down to the last detail. Plus he knows how to balance the film’s mixture of teen drama, fantasy and horror without it ever feeling uneven at all. Especially when it comes to film’s horror and fantastical elements, which I thought were really well done in how they were handled. While it works superbly as both a fantasy and a horror film, it’s the coming-of-age teen drama angle of BOYS IN THE TREES that’s really the true soul of the film. Since I was high school myself around the same time as this film was set, this was this part that really got me the most and I definitely could relate to what the characters were going through emotionally in the story. Even though the story is set in 1997, the themes that Verso’s script explores are very universal (friendship, peer pressure, bullying, fitting in, leaving behind your childhood, following your dreams etc.) and it gives the film a timeless quality to it that I think will resonate with people on a personal level. Plus it helps that Verso knows how to tap into the mindset of what teenagers are actually like. While they could have easily have been approach in that makes them feel rather superficial, his multi-layered script does a terrific job at fully developing its teen characters in an honest way. It really gives the young talented cast that Verso assembled for the film some really meaty roles to chew on.
When it comes to the performances from the young cast, there’s no question in my mind though that BOYS IN THE TRESS definitely belongs to both Toby Wallace (‘Corey’) and Gulliver McGrath, who play the film’s main protagonists ‘Corey’ and ‘Jonah’ respectively. Both Wallace and McGrath were absolutely terrific in their roles and I found their character’s friendship to be rather compelling. In the beginning both ‘Corey’ & ‘Jonah’ are former friends who are now basically strangers to each other but once they reunite and head out on their walk, we learn more about their past history with each other and what happened to them in their lives after they went their separate ways as kids. It’s these elements that I thought really added a lot of dimension to the film and both actors were able to convey those aspects with their performances perfectly. Among the supporting cast, I thought that both Mitzi Ruhlmann (‘Romany’) and Justin Holborow (‘Jango’) were quite impressive in their roles as well. While both they could have been complete cliches, both the actors and Verso’s script brought some interesting layers to their characters that made them a bit more fleshed out. Another aspect of the film that I loved was the soundtrack, which has a great nostalgic mix of songs from ’90s from both Australian and international acts (Spiderbait, Marilyn Manson, Bush, Rammstein, Gary Numan, Garbage etc.). Each song was used perfectly throughout the film and most of them actually enhanced the scene they were featured in to great effect. Plus Marden Dean’s cinematography is absolutely stunning and visually stylish, the music score by Shinjuku Thief was brilliantly done and I liked that Verso’s utilises Halloween as an important part of both the story and characters, which actually gives it a purpose rather than just having it as ‘cool’ backdrop to set the film at. Now you’re probably wondering was there any negative aspects that I had with the film? Actually to be honest, I don’t really have that many. It’s not to say that the film doesn’t have any flaws, I just found them to be quite minor. The only major one I can think of is that where the film goes with its story can be really predictable at times and there are some point turns that I definitely saw coming a mile away. However despite that, it didn’t really bother me too much in the end though.
Overall while BOYS IN THE TREES may not be the straight up full-blown horror film that I expected it to be, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a pretty amazing and ambitious film that I found to be absolutely captivating from beginning to end. Writer/director Nicholas Verso really did a fantastic job at creating a film that superbly combines together horror, surrealism, fantasy and coming-of-age drama successfully as a whole. It’s up there for me as one of the best Australian horror films of the pass few years. Like I said while it probably won’t be for everyone (especially if you’re a truly hardcore horror fan) but if you give it a chance, I have a feeling that it will resonate with you as it did with me. It truly is a special film. I highly recommend everyone to check it out and I won’t be surprise that after you’ve finished watching it, it’s going to be a new staple to your Halloween viewing list.
Written by Bede Jermyn
Note: BOYS IN THE TREES is now available for streaming on Netflix U.S. & U.K. and rent/buy from iTunes Australia & U.K. Also check out director Nicholas Verso’s acclaimed short film THE LAST TIME I SAW RICHARD here.
Is there any Australian horror films you would like me to cover for Horror Down Under? Leave your suggestions in the comment section below or tweet them to me at Twitter.com/BedeJermyn. I’ll put them under consideration for future editions of the column.