Review: Australian Shocker SCARE CAMPAIGN

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Prank at your peril in Australia’s latest horror offering, SCARE CAMPAIGN!

I get a bigger kick out of unsuspecting victims getting “Punk’d” than Ashton Kutcher probably does. I mean, what’s not to love about the deluge of horror-themed pranks currently doing the rounds on social media? It’s all a bit of harmless fun with most of the high jinks ending with the stooge pointing a finger at the hidden cameras or, at the very most, a bit of a fisticuffs followed by a pat on the back and a high five. But that’s all spit in the sea compared to the destructive domino effect a painstakingly planned prank sets into motion in SCARE CAMPAIGN, the latest venture from Australian writers/directors Colin & Cameron Cairnes.

Taking shows like “Scare Tactics” and “Room 401” way beyond the comfort zone, the minds that brought us the fantastic 100 BLOODY ACRES are back, this time blending reality TV with satiric horror-comedy trappings to serve up an ingeniously structured little flick, replete with lashings of caustic comedy and deftly disciplined amounts of barbaric brutality.

With an unflinching new “reality” show ruling the rating roost by honing in on the screenager generation’s lust for extreme “entertainment,” the ‘Scare Campaign’ prank show crew receive an ultimatum from their over-ambitchous producer: either wise up and “snap it in two” in the next episode and outshine the “new vids on the block” or get heave-hoed.

What comes next is a film of two contrasting parts: the first playing out like an extravagantly playful and insightful “behind-the-scenes” look into the TV show’s fastidious prank planning – whilst poking a self-aware finger in the eye of genre conventions as we get to see the secrets that go into designing a horror set. And then, much like THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON did before it, it catapults itself into a slasher formula with dogged ferocity whilst astutely retaining the pitch black comedy tone it sets right from the film’s bravura, J-Horror-hued curtain-raising prank. That’s about as much of an explanation as I’m prepared to share as the film relies almost entirely on its clever curveballs once the film crew ends up impaling itself on the very killer hook it set out to create.

When the film pitches the first of its many curveballs, I had a “Please tell me I haven’t fathomed it out already” moment and, even though I ended up being right, it was great to see how that particular twist played out. That said, things aren’t as telegraphed as the Cairnes brothers will have you believe.

And that’s exactly where the film excels.

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As luck would have it, the siblings know exactly how to push the audience’s buttons and are well aware of what we’ve seen before, teasing our knowledge of the genre with adroitly executed axis shifts that keep the proceedings percolating at a really healthy clip. Then, when the film careens towards its practical FX gorestravaganza finale and everything turns sixteen different flavors of slasher hell, the amusement never lets up as the audience is “sort of” in on the joke by this time, but there’s still that lingering question of who we can still trust, something we all know made SCREAM the big hit it became in 1996.

This all sounds like a riotous romp – and it is – but what makes it all the more enjoyable is that there’s an underlying metaphor behind SCARE CAMPAIGN‘s morbidity, and one that every horror fan can relate to. Playing on the current trend of reality show shorthand, it feels like the Cairnes bros. had an ulterior motive throughout, which was to draw attention to the more perverse (and prolific) side of the film and TV industry. At least for me, the film served as a stark reminder of the passive voyeur inside us all and it poses many a question about our fervent and sadistic penchant for finding enjoyment in unsuspecting victims getting put through the proverbial wringer.

The epitome of film-makers’ deleterious designs are also put under the microscope, perfectly portrayed by the perversely inappropriate enthusiasm of the “Scare Campaign” TV show director-cum-pretentious preener, Marcus (Ian Meadows), who will do literally anything to bump up those ratings. As soon as we meet him in the opening scene, all he’s concerned about is that his crew managed to get a good close up of the piss stains on his latest victim’s pants.

The entire cast is just as disgustingly talented as Meadows – as they absolutely need to be to sell a premise where deceit is the dish of the day. The anal retentive-yet-amiable Emma (Meegan Warner) was a joy to watch as she finds herself saddled with her exact opposite “sidekick,” the buoyant-cum-ebullient Abby (Olivia DeJonge). Warner’s character provides the doubting Thomas to the tale, adamant that everyone’s taking things way too far this time round whilst Abby is in her element serving as Marcus’ lapdog, ready and willing to scare her victims by whatever means necessary. And whilst most of the supporting players are just as game for a laugh, by far the best-developed character, Rohan (Josh Quong Tart), is the one you’ll be talking about on the car ride home. Quong Tart knows exactly what purpose his character serves and it’s so blatantly obvious he had an absolute blast working with the material he was given. His outrageous but resolutely restrained thesping will have you pissing and shitting your pants in equal measures.

Without taking any credit away from the cast, as they all nail their performances into the ground, the real show stealer is the location, Beechworth Lunatic Asylum which, coincidentally, was a fully-functional psychiatric institute back in the day and now offers paranormal sleepovers for anyone game enough to spend the night. Top kudos to Production Designer Justin Dix as the film absolutely thrives off of this edifice that owns virtually every single frame and the director’s themselves openly admit that much of the story was a by-product of discovering this perfect setting.

And, being the type of TV show “Scare Campaign” is in the film, you can imagine just how many “hidden” cameras had to be set up around the place. All hail Adam White’s editing (not forgetting the Cairnes brothers, who assisted him in the process) as I can’t even begin to imagine the immense task involved to stitch all the footage together in such a fashion that keeps the film entertaining but at the same time only shows just enough to keep some of the wool still pulled over the audience’s eyes.

Despite the film’s central premise focusing on prank scares and trying to get the old gray matter wondering just who’s pranking who, SCARE CAMPAIGN also has some effective scares up its sleeves.

Cleverly rendered sound design, predominantly made up of diegetic noise, radically intensifies the whole haunted house vibe going on and then, to top it all off, even though it’s apparent the Cairnes weren’t dead set on doling out gore galore, when the real carnage does rear its ugly head, it’s stunningly violent and the practical effects are, quite literally, mind-blowing.

It may only be March right now but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s going to take something pretty special to knock this one off my end of year faves list. It really is that much fun and I hope it catches fire on this year’s festival circuit as it absolutely deserves to.

The joke’s on you if you miss this taut, severely self-aware and legitimately funny “boodunnit.”

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