Director/Writer: Alister Grierson, Robert Benjamin
Stars: Ben O’Toole, Meg Fraser, Caroline Craig, Matthew Sunderland, Travis Jeffery, Jack Finsterer, David Hill, Caleb Enoka
By Harris Dang
“Bloody Hell” (2020) follows the story of Rex (Ben O’Toole) a seemingly average joe who is at a bank sorting out his financials(?) while trying to woo with the bank teller until suddenly a group of bank robbers seize the place. While the shit-hole situation becomes more frenzied, the man takes it upon himself to become a hero and thwart the bank robbers. But his well-intentioned yet impulsive decision comes with a price that is more costly than he had ever imagined.
After an eight year prison sentence and ongoing media scrutiny, Rex takes it upon himself (or in his case, letting fate decide through spit-balling on a world map poster) to move to Finland in order to start a new life. Just when things were starting to look sunnier, he is then thrown into yet an even deeper shit-hole as he is kidnapped by a family and taken prisoner in their basement. With only his wits and his voice of reason (physically portrayed by O’Toole) to keep his screws intact — even if some of his limbs aren’t – will Rex escape from his predicament?
Horror comedies are a subgenre that are hard to pull off successfully. One has to steer tone shifts smoothly and juggle both laughs and scares with skill and balance, whilst not overwhelming or underwhelming in either front. Most successful horror comedies include Sam Raimi‘s horror entries – “The Evil Dead Trilogy” (1981 – 1992) and “Drag Me To Hell” (2008) — or cult classics like Peter Jackson‘s “Braindead” (1992) or recent work from New Zealand like Gerard Johnstone‘s “Housebound” (2014) or Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement‘s “What We Do In the Shadows” (2014).
Now we can add “Bloody Hell” to the list because director Alister Grierson (best known for making 2011’s “Sanctum”) and writer/editor Robert Benjamin have pulled off a marvelously bonkers treat. One of the most inspired decisions that the filmmakers made for the film is the use of Rex’s voice of reason as a buddy character for Rex. Not only does it create a genial buddy comedy vibe (in which O’Toole plays both parts convincingly) but it also provides much-needed context in the characterization of Rex and what makes him tick; the impulsiveness, the recklessness and the yearning for the sheer thrill.
The concept of an Australian film populated with American and Finnish characters set in Idaho and Finland (filmed in the Gold Coast) sounds amusingly odd, like a desperate attempt to be internationally marketable to the point that its geographical feel is instantly diluted i.e. Simon Wincer’s “Harlequin” (1980). While the film never takes itself seriously for it to come across as realistic, the film fortunately does not embarrass itself with the likes of phony accents etc. But make no mistake, the film is undeniably Australian.
Grierson and Benjamin tell the story with the requisite style that takes the audience on a thrill ride as he shuffles timeframes and throws in stylistic flourishes (Dutch angles, crash zooms, freeze-frames), which lends a sadistically playful feel that makes you forget the raw low-budget edges (few locations, the green-screen backdrops) and adds a sense of unpredictability to the storytelling. While it does become prone to excessive self-aggrandizing with its genre influences (particularly the works of director Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson), the filmmakers never overplay their hand until the climax, in which it feels satisfyingly appropriate.
It also provides ample proof that the filmmakers are smart enough to know that suspense can be derived from both horror and comedy. While the style and storytelling are sufficient enough to maintain the suspense, it is only through the relatability of the characters that the suspense can be palpable. Thankfully, the filmmakers and O’Toole have fashioned a fantastic lead character in Rex. O’Toole provides the balance of charm, cynicism and even mild narcissism to entertaining aplomb, making his character believably flawed and still worth rooting for. Ditto for Meg Fraser in her debut film performance as Alia, who provides a soothing presence (with a touch of enigmatic intrigue) to contrast from the abhorrent proceedings as well as O’Toole’s work.
As for its flaws, the antagonists in the film are not distinctive enough to make a big impression. While they pull off reprehensible acts, their characterizations leave much to be desired despite the best efforts from the supporting cast. The ending also blatantly leaves room for a sequel, which comes off a bit desperate but that could be this reviewer’s bias on supposedly open-ended narratives.
Overall, “Bloody Hell” is a riotous and boisterous experience that provides all the horror and laughter genre fans expect with striking style and verve thanks to the energetic direction from Grierson, a cleverly kooky script from Benjamin and a great lead performance from O’Toole. Recommended.
“Bloody Hell” screened online at NightStream Festival and is now showing in Australian cinemas nationwide.