We all have things from our past we’ve tried to run away from…
…Director Alister Grierson’s newest feature, Bloody Hell, is an Australian/American horror comedy adapted from a screenplay by Robert Benjamin about a man who does just that, but in his effort to escape his past he ends up somewhere much worse than he’d ever imagined. Making its North American premiere at Nightstream Film Festival, Bloody Hell is a successful addition to the darker side of horror-comedy.
The film opens on a scene that was as unexpected as it was dark. In it we see a young girl running as fast as she can through a dark forest being chased by a group of men wearing sinister masks and a creature we can’t see. We do hear it, though, and the sounds it makes are monstrous. The cold open was so shocking because I knew going in that this was a comedy, but Grierson and company made it clear right away that the horror wasn’t about to be sidelined in this ambitious genre-bending story.
The creators immediately show their talent for combining the two when moments later there’s a complete tonal flip as we’re introduced to Rex Coen (Ben O’Toole), a dark, moody, and very handsome man, who also happens to be a little unstable. He finds infamy he doesn’t want when a video of his actions during a bank robbery and the trial that follows it goes viral. When he’s released from prison eight years later, his face appears on the cover of magazines and people begin to recognise him wherever he goes.
As he’s eating lunch, surrounded by paparazzi who are hounding him with their relentless questions and their cameras flashing in his face, we learn about his secret coping mechanism. Across the table from him sits another Rex that only he can see, a physical embodiment of his inner consciousness, which he continues to interact with throughout the film.
This element was utilised brilliantly, both as a way to deliver some pitch black comedy that had me laughing even when I probably shouldn’t have been, and as an excellent way to show us what was going on inside Rex’s head. This allowed us to get to know who he really was beneath the gruff exterior and made him much more likeable than an unhinged vigilante should ever be.
Unable to live a normal life in Boise, Idaho, Rex flees the country for a fresh start somewhere new where nobody knows who he is. He goes to Helsinki, a decision he made by shooting a spitball at a map, and winds up tied to the rafters in the basement of a Finnish family’s home. It’s there that we’re introduced to the rest of our main characters, a family full of complicated relationships and a dark secret they’ll protect at all costs.
There’s Mother (Caroline Craig) and Father (Matthew Sunderland) who we first meet in the airport and who Rex brushes off as harmless as they whisper about him while he waits to board the plane. Despite what he initially thought, by film’s end they have earned their place among the worst parents in horror.
Their daughter Alia (Meg Fraser) isn’t like the rest of her family; she’s quiet and timid, the sort of person that covers her eyes at the sight of violence and appears to have a conscience. Olli (David Hill) is the youngest and most innocent of them all, but the twins Gael and Gideon (both played by Travis Jeffery) and the uncle (Jack Finsterer) are more than happy to do what’s best for the family.
As someone that got their bachelor’s degree in graphic design with a focus on subjects like title sequences and typography, I couldn’t help but admire the work done by graphic designer Marcel Lim. Both credit sequences were incredibly stylistic in very different ways. The title sequence at the beginning of the movie was full of harsh cuts that made you feel like you’ve been pulled right into a film reel, while the end credits were done with comic book style illustrations and a vibrant colour palette. Like the film’s first scene, both sequences set a tone, albeit a much more chaotic and fast-paced one with a dark and twisted sense of humour.
Normally a film that references other movies can take me out of the story, but Bloody Hell sprinkles them in with a deft hand, and as a horror fan it made me happy to hear callbacks to some of my favourites, like Big Trouble in Little China and Misery. You can trust that if I ever find myself held captive, I’m gonna be asking myself, “How did Paul escape from Annie again?”
The primary reason the comedy worked so well for me was Ben O’Toole’s performance. As both versions of Rex he did an excellent job of portraying a character that’s as flawed as he is funny, and every minute he was on screen I was entertained.
Not only was this a fun and wild ride from beginning to end, it was also visually stunning, with some artistic and memorable imagery, as well as incredible cinematography by Brad Shield. The music, by Brian Cachia, managed to compliment those moments of madcap silliness while also ramping up the tension as the suspense built. The gruesome, sometimes brutal gore was accomplished by a talented team of practical effects artists: Jason Baird, Brooke Ledingham, Zara Long, Stanislav Pacavra, Tim Riach and William Scowsill.
While there were moments when the story felt a little silly or predictable, it never once stopped being enjoyable, and the 95-minute runtime felt much shorter than it was. Bloody Hell reminds us that just when we think things can’t get worse, they do, but at least we’re not being kept in the basement of a family of cannibals.
By Dani Vanderstock