The Snowtown Murders

03.04.12

The Snowtown Murders: Australia’s Gruesome Crime Saga on Film

‘The Snowtown Murders’ is an uncompromising film about the most gruesome crime in Australian history. Marlow Stern speaks with the director about the movie that’s dividing audiences.

It was the most gruesome serial killing spree in Australian history. On May 20, 1999, the mummified remains of eight victims were found in barrels of hydrochloric acid inside a former bank in Snowtown, a tiny village in South Australia about 150 kilometers north of Adelaide with a population of around 500. When the bank vault was opened, a stomach-turning stench was released.

“As a police officer, I’ve smelt death before,” said Snowtown policeman Ian Young. “You didn’t have to get close to this to know what this was.”

Inside the bank vault, police found a collection of torture instruments, including knives, a bloodstained saw, pliers, a double-barreled shotgun, rope, tape, rubber gloves, and a Variac metallurgy device that was used to administer electronic shocks to the victims’ genitals. Several of the bodies were dismembered.

A thorough police investigation revealed something even more sinister at work: a vast conspiracy involving as many as seven perpetrators and 12 victims who were murdered between August 1992 and May 1999. The ringleader was John Bunting, a former neo-Nazi who harbored a deep hatred of pedophiles and homosexuals and targeted those he suspected of being such. The case, which was like a cross between the West Memphis Three murders and the Manson Family, became a media sensation in its native Australia due to a years-long trial—three jurors withdrew because of the horror of the evidence—and came to be known as the “Bodies in Barrels Murders.”

Bunting was tried together with his cohort Robert Wagner, and on Sept. 8, 2003, they were convicted of 11 and 10 counts of murder, respectively. Mark Ray Haydon, a mentally challenged man, was sentenced to 25 years for helping dispose of the bodies, while James Vlassakis, a teenager who fell under Bunting’s spell, became the Crown’s star witness, eventually pleading guilty to four counts of murder.

The violent saga has become the subject of a recent film. Directed by first-time filmmaker Justin Kurzel, who grew up five minutes away from Snowtown, The Snowtown Murders arrives on U.S. shores accompanied by critical praise—it won a prize at Cannes and cleaned up at the Australian Film Institute Awards—and controversy.

Due to the nature of the crimes, as well as the terms of Vlassakis’s plea deal, about 300 suppression orders prevented publication of the details of the case. After some light prodding by producers, the orders were lifted when Kurzel began filming The Snowtown Murders. The public, however, was wary of seeing Australia’s worst serial killings be given the movie treatment.

“I think there was real anxiety in the state about this film being made, and a lot of that had to do with people thinking it was going to be a horror film and in bad taste, that it was too soon, or that the film was taking advantage of this tragedy,” said Kurzel in an interview with The Daily Beast.

Kurzel decided to make his film as realistic as possible, filming on location in Snowtown, at houses where some of the murders happened, and casting locals in most of the roles. He also worked closely with Michael O’Connell, commissioner for victims’ rights in Australia, who served as the film’s direct liaison to the real-life victims’ families.

The movie centers on 16-year-old Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), who lives with his mother, Elizabeth (Louise Harris), and two younger brothers in a housing-trust home in the suburbs of Adelaide. Sexually abused by his stepfather and raped by his half-brother, Jamie longs for an escape from the hopelessness that surrounds him. Salvation comes in the form of John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), a charismatic man who brings stability to Jamie’s family. John eventually becomes a father-figure mentor to Jamie, slowly indoctrinating him into his twisted ideology—in particular, his desire to wipe all pedophiles off the face of the planet. Fearful of—yet loyal to—his Svengali-like protector, Jamie soon finds himself manipulated into helping Bunting's gang murder several people.

According to Kurzel, The Snowtown Murders adopted the premise of a Western, with a kid in trouble and a man who arrives on a motorbike to save the family. Then the impressionable kid is seduced into committing heinous acts by his savior.

“It’s about the corruption of innocence,” said Kurzel. “Many kids in these areas don’t have father figures, and they’re searching for them, so I found this paternal relationship between a serial killer and a young boy fascinating. With John’s point of view, it would have been a body count, but with Jamie, you can see how a young boy would be manipulated into killing.”

A tension has always existed between two polarities in Australia: city-dwelling intellectuals and the rural working class. The juxtaposition is nearly as pronounced as the good-natured Aussie humor and the despairing, sandblasted scenery. Allan Perry, a renowned criminologist at Adelaide University, made some controversial statements at the time of the murders, placing the blame on class warfare.

“Adelaide is a stifled and inbred city whose subculture of degeneracy led to atrocities such as the Bodies in Barrels Murders,” said Perry. “I'm referring to the lifestyle of an increasingly significant subculture of people in the South Australian community whose lives are totally amoral and parasitic upon society. This culture of degeneracy had built up in some impoverished parts of the city created by welfare dependency and worsened by the breakdown of family units, leaving children growing up in amoral environments.”

While Kurzel disagrees with Perry’s harsh criticism of Adelaide, which he says is a beautiful, cultured city, he does echo some of his criticisms of the suburban community where Jamie was raised.

“The problem with this particular community was that there was a sense of injustice,” said Kurzel. “Everyone was just letting this particular area simmer and deal with its own problems, especially in the area of sexual abuse, where patterns were being repeated.”

Wake in Fright, a seminal 1971 film about a bonded teacher who is consumed by an outback mining town full of roughnecks, confronted this precarious relationship between the haves and the have-nots in Australia head-on.

“What’s the matter with you people, huh?” screams big-city teacher John Grant to an outback dweller. “You sponge off you, you burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child … that’s all right. Don’t have a drink with you, don’t have a flaming bloody drink with you—that’s a criminal offense.”

Australian audiences at the time weren’t ready to face such a searing indictment of their culture and rejected the film. Over the years, however, the movie has emerged as a cult classic that’s influenced countless filmmakers, including Aussie New Wavers Andrew Dominik (Chopper) and David Michôd, whose 2010 film Animal Kingdom also centered on a troubled family of criminals led by mad matriarch Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver). According to Kurzel, it’s no coincidence that most Australian films that travel to the U.S. center on crime and murder.

“I think we have a very, very strong heritage of muscular, crime-driven films,” said Kurzel. “A lot of our films deal with father figures and searches for identity, and I think in our history, those searches have been quite violent.”

While there isn’t an overwhelming amount of physical violence displayed onscreen in The Snowtown Murders—a close-up shot of a toe being mangled by pliers and kangaroos’ heads being smashed are the only bloody scenes—much of the controversy surrounding the film concerns its combination of social realism mixed with a relentlessly bleak tone.

“I always knew this was going to be a brutal film, and I wanted it to be uncompromising and visceral. I wanted it to be something people felt disturbed by,” said Kurzel. “A lot of violence in movies these days exists in fantasyland. There’s a soundtrack to it, and it’s heroic, so a lot of audiences can watch it, cause they have a compass. To me, real violence is the most disgusting, wicked thing. It comes out of the blue, and it’s fast, which is so different from genre films.” He pauses. “I wanted there to be an authenticity in this to where people were really horrified by these events.”