★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Word has it that the kids are in to mash-ups. Girl Talk, Danger Mouse, a little Jay Z, a little Beatles. Throw it all together and see what sticks. 2020’s the Marsh (originally released in 2018 in Australia) does just that — but maybe a little too much.
Directed by Roger Scott
First time (feature) film director Roger Scott, tosses all of the tropes together in a big old horror mixing bowl. There’s science-y city folk vs. the grizzled country folk. There’s know-it-alls vs. gut instinct. There’s hillbillies vs. college students. There’s man vs. nature. And, there’s even a little survival instinct delusion added for good measure.
A marsh in the beautifully shot Australian outback is the exquisitely simple setting for a routine water sampling field visit by Pria, Will, and Ben. A couple days outside of the lab and ready to enjoy the glory of the wetlands ecosystem. Much in the same way as the Japanese masterwork Onibaba, the marsh and its complex system of reeds become its own confining and confounding outdoor haunted house.
On their way out to the field the crew stops at a rural petrol station where they’re confronted by a rural sod. Not too confrontational and not to sod-like, but an interesting piece of exposition that manufactures the tension between the pinhead city folk and the chowder-headed hillbillies from the hinterland. Pria is told by a local that all scientists want to do is divert water away from the farmers and ranchers to provide excess resources to meaningless lifeforms and subservient critters.
As soon as the budding trio of wildlife biologist arrives at camp there’s a noticeable sexual tension between Pria and Will. Ben becomes the third wheel, but not in a noticeable and tangible way, just a passive third wheel that adds little to the story. As the crew heads out in the marshy slackwater they encounter the same chowder-headed hillbillies from the petrol station and Pria sternly tells them that they can’t be in a restricted reserve, nor can they be hunting wild boars. Clearly strange things are afoot in the marsh. There’s indications of people watching them, there’s whistling in the wind, there’s heat-induced dreams, but there’s not a lot of scares. Ultimately, it takes director Roger Scott nearly 50 minutes before there’s any real scares, gore, or hillbilly violence. When it finally does happen it’s neatly tucked away with low budget trickery and obfuscation.
Eventually Pria, Will, and Ben are faced with the very real fact that there is a chowder-headed behemoth of a hillbilly that’s stalking them and every living thing in the marsh. The killing by numbers effort comes to a very peculiar conclusion that’s not entirely clear, nor is much of a conclusion. If the conceit is an attempt to leave room for a the Marshes II, the Marshes pretty well fails. While the film plays with Pria’s PTSD induced delusion, as a result of being stalked by a behemoth of a hillbilly, the concept is never truly formed or explored.
Horror is certainly a forgiving genre that allows for many constructs, tropes, and devices to be crammed in to a single film. But if all the tropes are given equal play and there’s no clear directorial through-line then the audience is just forced to pick apart an hour and a half of lot of ill-formed ideas. Make no mistake, the Marshes looks great and the acting is really splendid, but eventually the film loses its compass and gets lost in its own swampy backwaters.
The Masrhes is likely Rated R and is currently streaming on Shudder.