Have you ever made an effort to save a rapidly-dying aquatic ecosystem, only to be stalled by a backwoods hick, his oddly polite dog, and shitty girlfriend? Has the group of hicks then come under attack by a kind-of urban legend, but only sort of? If you’ve answered “yes” to either of these questions and hallucinated entire portions of the experience, then you are for sure the main protagonist of The Marshes…
...Like a wallaby high on amphetamines, writer/director Roger Scott’s The Marshes stumbles into the scene confused, but simple enough: a couple University scientists, Prea (Dafna Kronental) and Ben (Mathew Cooper), insistent on saving some aquatic stuff in the Australian outback head into ‘the bush’, complete with Will (Sam Delich), a grad student assistant, to do just that. Right from the get-go, The Marshes isn’t afraid to conform to typical horror tropes, and that’s something you’ll need to get used to very fast. We’re quickly immersed in the vast wilderness with the obvious sense that our protagonists are heading a little too far away from home. Running into a hick with an aggressive beard at a gas station, who clearly isn’t a fan of whatever the scientists are doing, allows the story to continue with momentum into what most of us will have guessed by now:
The film follows this path – not necessarily in the aforementioned order – and manages to hit most staples in the wilderness horror playbook. Several references to Deliverance later, our scientists are collecting water samples for whatever they’re doing (they don’t get too specific into details here, which could’ve helped build a background), running into the hick from the gas station, and make low-level threats to see his hunting permit for the boar he’s currently gutting with a large knife.
If it sounds like you know what’s going to happen next, you’d be half correct. The film struggles with an identity crisis of sorts and this begins to manifest in many ways when our scientists arrive at their campsite. Camera work dynamically shifts from calming wide-angle shots of the environment, to close ups of facial expressions, on-rails single takes, and everything in between. Though the cinematographic quality is present, it never really commits to one theme, which impairs its ability to help in building tension. Some scenes look like they’d fit into a nature documentary, some are more along the lines of soft-core porn, some kind of fit within the confines of a horror film. There’s one in particular where Prea heads out to collect samples alone (mind you, this is after their campsite was vandalized by the hick) and thinks she hears something – or someone – moving in the grass near her. One second we have a wide-angle zoomed out shot, her in the center of view, and a half second later the camera cuts to a nauseating close-up of her face in distress, followed by another close-up of some trees somewhere. It feels like a juxtaposition of camera work; some of these shots could’ve worked when pieced together better, especially with the great setting this was shot in, but that never really happens.
Progression of the story, which isn’t much at this – or any – point, is another area where The Marshes misses the mark. Sure, we’ve heard this one a million times and could’ve probably predicted the ‘ghost story’ from before is more real than we think. About midway through the film, it shifts in direction as the antagonist hicks from earlier now become part of the pool of victims, as the supernatural-ish “Swagman” (Yes. That’s the name he goes by) hones in his killer instincts on everyone involved.
Both acting and dialogue are never very convincing, with the “grad student college dude”, Ben (Sam Delich), being somewhat decent at being just that: a college (Uni for the Aussie’s out there) dude. Though this formula is stale (my opinion), sometimes it can still make for a fun horror movie. However, there are a few specific times where Prea may or may not have hallucinated an entire scene (???), making the entire effort seem unsure. Maybe an unreliable narrator premise could’ve worked in the long run, but the film doesn’t ever solidify itself into one explanation, believable or not.
With all the puzzle pieces The Marshes gives us, some of the individual ones work, but the end result doesn’t fit together. It’s confused in what it wants to be, but isn’t complex enough to be a “mind-fuck”, gory enough to be a slasher, or campy enough to be a cheesy B movie-esque effort. Since it never fully commits to one of the many horror tropes it possesses, it’s difficult to imagine what the end result could’ve been if the film just gave in and became super formulaic; as boring as that can be.
The Marshes is now available on Shudder.
By Zach Gorecki