Studio: Monster Pictures
Director: Glenn Triggs
Writer: Glenn Triggs
Producer: Chris Gibson, Glenn Triggs
Stars: Jane Barry, Geoff Pinfield, David Macrae, Ashleigh Gregory, Frederique Fouche, Nalini Vasudevan, Felicity Steel, Zoe Imms, Donna Pope, Rachel Torrance, Tom McCathie
A two-person documentary team investigates a mysterious doomsday cult living in secret in an Australian forest.
Step aside haunted asylums and endless woods. With films like “Bryan Loves You,” “The Sacrament” (review here), the “Safe Haven” segment of “V/H/S/2” (review here), and even scenes from “Children of Sorrow” (review here), the new game in town for “found footage” is doomsday cults. Australian indie “Apocalyptic” dons a white robe and joins its brethren in that same commune with an above average take on the frightening theme of faith-based suicide, even if it is light on inventive insight into what motivates such minds.
Documentary news team Jodie and Kevin have a middling assignment covering a twelve-step meeting at the local community center. Anecdotes of addiction struggles take a suddenly more interesting turn when a junkie relates how he recently left a secretive religious commune hidden in the woods. Jodie and Kevin dig into the details and set their sights on the forest, where their cameras are ceremoniously welcomed, provided they leave their cell phones behind and wear blindfolds first.
The world they enter is akin to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” as though populated by an Amish version of the Manson Family. For reasons revealed later, men are nowhere to be found. Dressed in matching pink gowns and sporting empty-eyed smiles, the women lead rustic lifestyles with a hive-mind mentality, ready and willing to churn either butter or cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, depending upon what they are told.
Their leader, Michael, is a mixture of Marshall Applewhite without the bug-eyed expression and David Koresh without the confident swagger. Actor David Macrae’s physical frame and oily black eyes give Michael the requisite look of a creepy father figure with a Messiah complex, although he struggles to convey the hypnotic dark charm of an enigmatic personality.
Something that charismatic cult leaders generally have in common is an answer at the ready for every possible question. From Jim Jones to Charles Manson, every available tape of such men speaking shows an inability to be brief with words and a silver-tongued talent for keeping conversations flowing. Macrae’s early scenes in particular are highlighted by awkward pauses, as if mentally fumbling over what he wants to say, perhaps trying to remember lines or create something through improvisation. It is out of character for an experienced religious leader to say grace over dinner in a stilted manner, but his performance improves as the tone becomes more sinister, when it is less important for mesmeric warmth to shine through.
Michael also isn’t as much of a focal point in the way that “Father” is in “The Sacrament.” Ample time is spent getting to know the ladies of the camp who range from as young as eight to “of a certain age.” All of the featured actresses are inexperienced enough that not one of them has a headshot on IMDB, yet each one delivers a believably brainwashed acolyte. Their “regular girl” appeal helps “Apocalyptic” feel more genuine than most mockumentaries, which is a quality that pushes the film through its pitfalls.
Banshee-shrieking climax excluded, “Apocalyptic” is a quiet dread affair. Making great use of its natural woodland setting, overcast skies and fog milling amongst trees enhance the walled-in feeling of being somehow trapped in a wide-open space. The film doesn’t contain much by way of jump from the dark boos, but the haunting creepiness of impending disaster drapes even the most innocuous actions.
The horrible inference is obvious when it is revealed that Michael selects a different girl to retire with him each evening, or when an eight-year-old beams with oblivious delight over how much she likes Michael’s kisses and aspires to marry him. Yet “Apocalyptic” doesn’t dwell unnecessarily on those distressing themes. No one knows for certain what nefarious activities might occur behind closed doors. That is up to the viewer’s mind to interpret, since the film always pokes one finger of doubt at the warped world before it becomes too overtly disturbing.
There have been enough similar films in the faux cult exposé and “found footage” families that the if/then caveat now goes without saying. “Apocalyptic” requires a predisposed fascination with the first-person format as well as with skewed depictions of religious fanaticism. It also requires inhibiting desires to look too closely at the details. A number of character motivations are as foggy as the surrounding forest, especially when it comes to the lead journalist with more career ambition than common sense. So anyone sighing at the mere hint of “another” entry in either subgenre should know to look elsewhere for thriller entertainment. Meanwhile, those who calibrate expectations accordingly might find themselves immersed in a strange realm of shocking behavior with even more shocking consequences.
Review Score: 70