It's 7 PM when I enter a bar in Hobart called the Grand Poobah, where the Tasploitation Challenge is set to begin. The Challenge started three years ago, and has become one of Tasmania's largest film competitions. The mood is strange; there's a nervous electricity in the air and a sense of subdued... something.
Some contestants are talking about the crash that happened nearby last night. Four teenagers in a stolen RAV4 hurtled through a red light, killing a pregnant 24-year-old. The teenage driver ran from the scene, and the woman's two-year-old son escaped mostly unscathed. The mother didn't survive. Such mindless acts of horror don't often happen in Hobart and people in the city had spent most of the day wandering around in varying states of sadness.
Now, in the evening, we're at the opening of the challenge, where 26 teams of filmmakers will write, shoot, and edit a short horror film in just 48 hours. Horror as entertainment has met actual, life-wrecking, despair-inducing horror, and it's a very strange feeling.
From the stage, festival director Briony Kidd opens the competition and each team is given a sub-genre, a prop, and a line of dialogue to incorporate into its film. Apart from that, there are no rules.
I introduce myself to Shaun Wilson. He and his team, Dying Arts, have been allocated the Evil Twin genre. Their prop is a satin jacket and they must use a line from the Iggy Pop song "Neighborhood Threat" in their film. Wilson seems unconcerned with these constraints, which is understandable—the members of Dying Arts are all professional filmmakers, performers, or writers. Their scriptwriter, Finegan Kruckemeyer, has had 74 plays commissioned and performed around the world. Wilson jokes with his crew, heckles some friends, and generally looks relaxed. They are definitely the early favorites.
I walk on and approach a group of lightly bearded, heavily relaxed young men who—in contrast to the chummy Dying Arts crew—are not mingling with the crowd. All except one are dressed in those low-cut, deep-slung style of singlet that seem specifically designed to reveal the male nipple. The group's director of photography, Marcus Morrell, tells me the team is called the Carcinorganics, and that they've entered Tasploitation to "show what we can do." I nod. "You can't overthink it," he explains in a flat voice. I wonder how much weed these guys smoke. Privately, I don't give the Carcinorganics much chance. They've been given Haunted House as a sub-genre, a tiny clock as a prop, and a line from a David Bowie song.
The teams rush off to start scripting and I walk to the waterfront to find a beer, passing the crash site on the way. It's been cleared. The only thing that gives away what happened is the people who stand around, staring at the intersection. I check the local news on my phone. The teenage fugitive has been caught in nearby Kingston and charged with manslaughter. Even though the mother had passed away, her baby was delivered—premature, but alive.
The next afternoon I'm standing in the front yard of a neat blue house in Mount Nelson, watching Dying Arts work. Wilson films his two lead actors as they deliver emotionally taut performances. Kruckemeyer observes from the driveway, script in hand, making sure they don't butcher his work. I'd planned on staying longer, but there doesn't seem much point. They've just reconfirmed their status as favorites.
I leave and follow Morrell's directions to a large, neglected brick building in New Town where the Carcinorganics are filming. On set a mulleted man is clutching a buzzsaw, flanked by two buxom blondes in nurse uniforms. Morrell studies them through a track-mounted camera. His previously relaxed demeanor swapped for an intensely focused stare. He's surrounded by the rest of the Carcinorganics—still wearing their super-loose singlets—who are holding lights, operating laptops, and wafting smoke towards the actors from a foot-pedaled machine. The whole setup is impressive, and I feel ashamed for writing them off earlier.
Later that night, a candlelight vigil is held at the site of the crash. Over 200 people attend. A dozen Buddhist monks hold a silent prayer. As the Tasploitation teams begin shooting their night scenes, the baby is still in intensive care. The teams spend Sunday editing their films before rushing down to hand their final cuts to Kidd and her co-organizers by 7 PM. On Monday evening the screening and judging is held in the Hobart City Hall. About 300 people turn up, in varying degrees of horror dress-up.
Twenty-six films have been entered, with plenty of chase scenes, handheld camera work, and, impressively, even Claymation. Werewolves, haunted houses, possessed children, and a few garden-variety murderous psychopaths appear, plus a few too many clowns. Dig by the Decomposers is worth noting for its excellently gory special effects, as is Canine by Acute Brow Productions. The Carcinorganics also turn in one of the stronger films with Takayna—a gothic, bloody piece that draws its story from one of the many massacres of Aboriginal People in Tasmanian history. Morrell's smooth, predatory camera work is particularly impressive. They take home the Tasmaniana Award, given to the film that best interprets the idea of Tasploitation.
Predictably, the Jury Award for best film goes to Dying Arts for Things You Take, a terrific piece that was even tighter and more menacing on screen than it seemed on set. On stage, Wilson seems shocked, and he tries to deflect the applause towards his teammates. Afterwards, he tells me in a breathless mutter "We got it. We got it. I'm quite surprised." Nobody else seems to be. I slip out and head to my car. As I pull out of the car park I see the crash site, not far from the City Hall. On the ground is a small mound of candles and flowers.
It's been a strange weekend, watching people simulate horror in a city filled with grief about the real thing. When I asked Kidd to reflect on this she was thoughtful. "I would never want to use the horror film as entertainment to comment directly on something as terrible as the accident last week," she said. "All horror is commenting on that kind of real event."
Films like these help us escape the daily horror that surrounds us, I suppose. As Kidd remarked, "Telling stories about that, whether very serious or more silly and light, is actually a way of processing and coping with those deep and fundamental facts of life."
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