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Friday, February 10, 2017
Red flag: teenagers running around in the woods at night, being menaced by an unseen, err...menace! Sounds like potential run-of-the-mill generic "dead teenager" fodder, except this time--saints be praised!--it isn't.
Far from the gormless norm, in fact, is the 2015 Australian thriller-chiller DEATH PASSAGE (originally known by the considerably less evocative title "Lemon Tree Passage"), which, while not exactly all-out terrifying, is a shudder-inducing exercise in "eerie."
When three American tourists meet a couple of native Aussies on the beach, the five fun-loving teens share ghost stories around the campfire. One chilling tale involves an unfortunate soul run down one night by careless young joyriders at the crossroads of Lemon Tree Passage, his ghost now said to take the form of a bright light which follows any auto speeding down the dark roadway.
Naturally, they can't resist trying it themselves, and almost immediately the light appears. Further investigation of the phenomena, however, elevates the situation from a lighthearted lark into a grueling ordeal of terror and death. Which of course is bad for them, but good for us.
We can see right off the bat that director David Campbell's feature debut is going to be technically well-done, and the script dispenses with the usual stereotypical characters and willfully dumb dialogue in favor of a bit of realism for a change.
The characters are pretty basic, including Americans Maya (Jessica Tovey, TRACKS, ADORE), her friend Amelia (Pippa Black), and Amelia's younger brother Toby (Tim Pocock). Australian Geordie (Tim Phillipps), who catches Maya's eye, is pleasant enough, and even the resident "overweight funny guy", Geordie's pal Oscar (Andrew Ryan), is likable enough and doesn't pee on the campfire or light his farts.
The one wild card in this deck, seemingly, is Geordie's weird brother Sam (Nicholas Gunn). We know Sam is bad news because the film opens with him being haunted by a malevolent supernatural presence which will show up again later while he's in the shower. We don't know why he's being haunted, but it can't be good.
Sooner or later, of course, things take a turn for the worst when the entire cast find themselves galumphing around in the pitch black forest at night, hearing far-off screams and seeing elusive lights flashing hither and yon. One by one, they either start to disappear or display strangely unexplained behavior as though possessed by a will not their own.
And this isn't just the usual stalker stuff packed with cheap jump scares. Campbell and co-writer Erica Brien have a deviously twisty supernatural story to tell here, and they know how to wring all the creepy suspense and eerie atmosphere out of it.
Things may drag a little at times or become a tad confusing here and there, but for the most part, that dark, foreboding forest becomes a theme park of fear with one dreadful surprise after another.
After the final revelation comes, DEATH PASSAGE releases us from its cold, slimy grasp and lets us go about our way. But until then, it's like a deluxe version of one of those creepy campfire tales that chill the blood and make us jump at every sound or movement that comes from beyond the flickering edge of the darkness.
Buy it at Amazon.com