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Film Festival review: Carnifex

Things not to do when being stalked by a carnivore in the bush: tell a friend to wait here because you’ll be back; joke about extinct meat-eaters that drop from the trees and go for the jugular; hope to find something no one has seen before.

Oct 25, 2022, updated Oct 25, 2022

This classy, South Australian-made excursion into environmental horror follows three young people – a filmmaker and two scientists – as they go offroad to check motion-sensor cameras that monitor wildlife after bushfires have caused major upheaval in the natural world.

The set-up is leisurely as the three get to know each other. Bailey (Alexandra Park) is the aspiring documentary maker whose brother died fighting the fires. The scientists, Ben (Harry Greenwood) and Grace (Sisi Stringer), are in the early stages of a flirtation and both know a lot about animals and the environment – including, in Ben’s case, the history of the Thylacoleo Carnifex, a kind of marsupial lion.

First-time director Sean Lahiff lets the suspense build slowly as the trio hack deeper into the bush, the light fading as they go. They reclaim footage of a rare, yellow-footed rock wallaby being attacked, and there are large claw marks on the tree. They stumble on a skeleton which looks suspiciously human. When they first glimpse the Carnifex, they act like scientists and chase it. Bad move.

Lahiff is an experienced editor (his credits include I Am Mother) who avoids jump scares and sets the mood in the opening scenes with beautiful-but-ugly footage of bush creatures gorging on prey after sundown. There are no cheap tricks, just a lot of dodgy choices as the three conduct their studies in thick bushland, at night.

On a scale of movie monsters, the beast isn’t too bad and the film has been given an M rating. The horror lies more in what it does, and the squelching sound effects are so gruesome you are glad not to watch.

The real star is the South Australian bush, with the majestic white gums gleaming under a moonlit sky. It was shot in the Adelaide Hills at locations including Morialta and Belair National Park, with a couple of days on set in a Port Adelaide warehouse when it rained. The glorious stillness, the animal calls and birdsong make you forget, at least for a while, that out there is a reincarnated megafauna that drops from the trees to kill.

It’s a lot of fun and the creature itself is a playful nod to the drop bear of bush legend that was said to hang around outdoor toilets. The story blends horror with hope to just the right degree and – a small spoiler to put your mind at rest – the dog makes it.

Carnifex is being presented as part of the 2022 Adelaide Film Festival, and will screen again on October 29 at the Odeon Star Semaphore. It will be released nationally in December.

Read more Film Festival stories and reviews here.

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