Isolation and remoteness have long been common horror tropes. It is found in Stephen King’s “The Shining,” with the Torrance family snowbound in the secluded Overlook Hotel. It is found in “The Descent,” in which the characters are stuck in a claustrophobic cavern populated by ravenous creatures. It also is showcased in John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” in which an American research station is besieged by an aggressive, hostile alien entity.
“The Marshes” relies heavily on remoteness to underscore imminent danger. Unfortunately, the plot of director Roger Scott’s survival thriller is as murky as a blackwater river flowing through a bald cypress forest.
The film follows a group of young microbiologists as they head deep into the Australian wilderness to test water samples. During the expedition, they come into conflict with some local trappers, are generally irked by insects and, eventually, believe that they are being hunted by a mysterious figure of local legend.
The group is led by Pria, a graduate student played by Dafna Kronental. Mathew Cooper plays Ben, another graduate student. Rounding out the trio is Will, an undergraduate student played by Sam Delich. Will is the greenhorn in this equation, having little experience in the field — which is made abundantly obvious when he falls down while trying to put on a pair of waders.
There is a lot of overtness happening in this movie, as if the director feels it is necessary to use Thor’s hammer to pound in every detail. A single verbal allusion to “Deliverance” following a confrontation with the trappers would have been sufficient, but the script dwells on the reference. The audience gets it: Smart college folks are afraid uneducated local yokels will do naughty things.
The characters are wildly inconsistent and behave in ways that suit the direction of the script instead of being true to their personalities. An unflappable Pria is determined to stay and complete her research no matter what obstacles stand in her way in one scene; a few scenes later, she’s annoyed that Ben is taking so long gathering his data because she is ready to leave.
Scott sets up “The Marshes” as an ecological horror film. The film opens with a tableau of microscopic organisms, some a bit sinister looking, which is repeated later at certain moments of rising tension, delivered as a rapid series of creepy visuals. The sequences are reminiscent of Ken Russell’s hallucinogenic montages.
For the first 30 minutes of the film, it seemed like “The Marshes” might reflect themes featured in 2012’s “The Bay,” a found footage film about a mutant breed of parasites.
Instead, the movie takes a peculiar turn by introducing an urban legend — one that likely to be easily accessible to anyone outside of Australia. The film’s apparent antagonist is a swagman. In Australia in the 19th century, a swagman was an itinerant laborer who traveled from farm to farm looking for work. He carried his possessions in a “swag,” or bedroll.
Apparently, aspects of the swagman have become ingrained in folklore much as have the collective experiences of the American hobo. Ballads have been written about the swagman. The swagman figure in “The Marshes” was possibly inspired by Barbara Baynton’s 1896 short story “The Chosen Vessel,” which recounts the tale of a woman living alone in a bush dwelling who is murdered by a swagman.
In “The Marshes,” the swagman is reduced to the role of a conventional supernatural slasher, akin to Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Unfortunately, the script fails to supply sufficient background information on the urban legend to lend any weight to the concept. No rules of engagement are outlined, which leaves little hope for the victims. That’s OK, though, since the characters have done absolutely nothing to evoke any amount of empathy from viewers.
“The Marshes” gradually becomes a low-quality facsimile of “In the Tall Grass,” the 2019 Canadian horror film based on a 2012 novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Pria, Ben and Will spend most of the movie either arguing or running around the Australian wetlands aimlessly while waiting to be captured and gutted by the cannibalistic swagman. Watching them make a string of terrible — and totally implausible — decisions is aggravating and distracting. More than once, the viewer will likely hit the PAUSE button and shout why would you do that?
Even in what should be the film’s most stressful moments, the actors never manage to convey any sense of real terror. Their panic and fear never feels particularly genuine. As for the swagman: The viewer never gets to know anything about him, other than he whistles and grunts and sniffs out his prey. Oh — he does have a fondness for sharp farm implements.
The worst part about “The Marshes” is that it squanders its best qualities. The setting is both beautiful and, in its remoteness, ominous. The script could have combined elements of ecological horror with urban legend to create something unique and compelling. Even the film’s villain, played by Eddie Baroo, could have been afforded a more detailed backstory that would have provided a frame of reference, particularly for international viewers. As it stands, “The Marshes” is neither scary nor interesting.
If forced to watch the film, I suggest you do what I did: To make it more palatable, I allowed myself to imagine that the swagman was actually a deranged elderly Crocodile Dundee.
RLJE Films picked up select rights to “The Marshes” from Shudder, AMC Networks’ streaming service for horror, thriller and the supernatural. “The Marshes” was released June 16 on VOD, Digital HD, DVD and Blu-ray.
Lee Clark Zumpe is entertainment editor at Tampa Bay Newspapers and an author of short fiction appearing in select anthologies and magazines.