What’s in the box? No, it’s not Gwyneth Paltrow’s pretty head but Laurie Strode and she’s crawling out of that box to find herself in the middle of Crystal Lake. Before she knows it, Jason Voorhees is coming for her with an axe! She turns to run away but what’s this? It’s Leatherface with his chainsaw roaring and he’s chasing Nancy Thompson of 1428 Elm Street! What the hell is happening?!
Last night I checked out the 2019 film “The Furies” on Shudder. An old school slasher film that comes to us from Australia and is a total love letter to 70’s and 80’s slashers. Of course that is what slasher kids have been delivering since 1996 when Kevin Williamson brought his admiration for the subgenre to life in the knock-out hit “Scream” which breathed new life into the floundering brand of horror film. The Furies comes from first time writer/director Tony D ‘Aquino who pitched his movie back in 2016 to the Canberra Screen XET funding body and a local production company who were looking to produce low budget genre films in Canberra, the capital city of Australia.
The funding body ran what is called an “accelerator pod” that looks over dozens of script and project pitches from multiple candidates and D’Aquino landed funding for his film that was pitched as “Halloween meets Battle Royale.” Borrowing from a multitude of various films that he loved—everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to gladiator films of the 1950’s and 60’s, Tony got the idea to take a bunch of final girls and slashers and drop them into a most dangerous game scenario set in an abandoned, wooded gold mining attraction.
I’ll give you a little set up without giving you many spoilers from here.
The film opens in broad daylight—the entire film takes place in the hot, harsh sun of Down Under which was Tony’s nod to Chainsaw, and in a secluded wooded nightmare land filled with ghost gums—a native tree of Central Australia with a distinctive thin trunk that is both smooth and stark white only adding to the dry, bright imagery of the landscape. We see a young woman running for her life being stalked by a psychopath in the traditional manner. Only a second psychopath starts to battle with the first and before we can get a grip on what is going on a digital camera feed shows the second psychopath carrying the woman away like a trophy.
Cut to an urban setting where we find two new young women, best friends Kayla (Airlie Dodds) and Maddie. (Ebony Vagulans). Maddie is spray painting “Fuck Patriarchy” in red paint on a wall in an underpass while Kayla seems to question why. It’s established that Kayla lives her life pretty conservatively while Maddie challenges her to live a little for a change. Maddie walks away but is suddenly warning her best friend to run and before we see what is happening everything goes black and Kayla awakens inside a black box with a red light and siren blasting away at a painful volume. She screams until she is allowed to exit the box and finds herself in the nightmarish wasteland we got a glimpse of in the beginning. The side of her box reads in white: “BEAUTY 6.”
Kayla notices that her left eye is bleeding. She starts to roam the endless forest until finally running into two other young women (Taylor Ferguson and Danielle Horvat). They seem to have a better handle on what’s at stake here. That they are being hunted by a masked maniac and need to stick together. Kayla wants to find Maddie but is suddenly panicked and rushes back to her box to search for something very important to her. Defeated, Kayla stands up in desperation before blacking out and collapsing. While unconscious she begins to see the point of view of a killer with an ax roaming the same woods. He himself crawled from a similar black box with “BEAST 6” written on its side. Before she can understand what she is seeing, she awakens to find only one of the girls has stayed with her. She explains to the girl that she has epilepsy and was looking for her pills as she needs them to treat the illness. When asked why she stayed with her instead of moving on the girl puts it to her bluntly. Kayla has the weakness and in a pig hunt, if you stick with the weaker pig, the hunter will catch the slower of the two while the other can escape. That’s when a large mammoth of a brute in overalls and a strange mask with an ax comes hunting and Kayla understands what is happening here.
What unfolds is a socially aware, no-holds barred slasher film filled with practical effects, gore and set pieces. Socially aware in that D’Aquino wanted to pay tribute to 80’s slashers but without being as misogynistic about how the women are portrayed in those older films. They aren’t waiting for the woodsman to come save them, they aren’t being sexualized by wearing next to nothing and absolutely no nudity. What we get is a group of final girls working together or at times against one another to survive this most dangerous game where multiple masked killers are hunting them for someone else’s sport. Make no mistake that it is an orchestrated game as no one can leave the area and it will be a fight to the death.
The film was shot by cinematographer Garry Richards (The 2013 remake of the Australian classic Patrick) who delivers on giving the film this burnt out, hot and dry nightmare world. The practical effects were executed by make-up artist Larry Van Duynhoven and with great success. Both Larry and Tony were hellbent on keeping things as practical as possible to pay homage to the works of Tom Savini and the other legendary make-up artists they grew up admiring. And Tony wanted to keep as much of it on screen as possible. One moment in the film had the director questioning himself if he had gone too far. I won’t spoil it but it’s a pretty impressive gag.
Coming up with the collection of killers was another labor of love for the duo with additional drawings from designer Seth Justice, and they leaned right into the homage factor of it. All of the killers dress in very archetypal, similar ways. Dusty colored overalls, each wearing a terrifying mask. There’s a Jason, a Leatherface and even masks reminiscent of films like Tourist Trap, Stage Fright and Motel Hell. All on purpose.
Lead actress Airlie Dodds, who appeared in another thriller several years before called “Killing Ground” gives a classic final girl performance in the film and has a vintage heroes journey character arc. The timid, conservative young woman with a weakness finds in herself the survivor and fighter deep within. Tony made sure to school Dodds on the classic films he was inspired by as her only reference to slashers were the films her young friends showed her from the post-Scream era. D’Aquino in particular showed her Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s Halloween as a template for who Kayla needed to be.
Is the film breaking new ground? Not really. It’s a slasher meets all of the dangerous game shows we’ve seen before like the mentioned Battle Royale as well as Hunger Games, Wedlock, The Running Man and there is even a nod to the 1980 Harvey Keitel science-fiction film Death Watch. The film often falls into feeling very repetitive. The killers lacking personalties of their own and all being the same mute, brute figure only there to hack and slash and do their damage.
The best The Furies has to offer horror fans is good old fashioned slasher fun. The cat and mouse hunt soaked in practical blood and guts with some pretty good performances from its “human” cast who most of the time make well-thought out decisions to survive their ordeal which is refreshing getting not one but six final girls who for the most part are fairly developed and given more to do than run and scream. Another plus is the 80 minute run-time. A lot of indie horror films can hang out too long these days. The Furies, gets right into it and doesn’t waste time.
Australia has produced some great cinema over the decades in the horror genre. From the work of Brian Trenchard-Smith and Peter Weir to the more modern work of Jennifer Kent, Greg McLean, Sean Byrne, James Wan and Leigh Whannell. Tony D’Aquino shows a lot of promise in The Furies and given his love of cinema (he notes The Witch and Hereditary being two of his favorites of the genre of recent years), I wouldn’t be surprised if he gives the genre a real smash in the coming years. The Furies isn’t that movie, but it’s a worthy debut with teeth that a good amount of horror fans should get a good amount of pleasure from. It does set itself up for a sequel in a sort of “Hostel” fashion. Who knows, maybe we’ll be seeing The Furies 2 very soon.