Acolytes

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Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival.

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Australian micro-budget auteur Jon Hewitt has stepped up to the medium-sized leagues with the solid horror film "Acolytes." With about $4 million to play with, Hewitt -- known for turning out violent genre films such as "Bloodlust" and "Redball" for pocket change -- has crafted a tense serial-killer chiller for the teen market.

The genre film is king in Australian cinema currently and "Acolytes" sits at the quality end of the spectrum; it's more restrained than a slasher film, less patronizing than much teen-targeted horror and has a decidedly polished look to its art direction and cinematography. This is one scary movie that pauses for a schoolgirl to admire a ray of sunlight filtering through a spider's web.

Following its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Acolytes" looks set for a prolonged spin on the international festival circuit ahead of its domestic release in early 2009.

There's a distinctly Australian feel to the tale of three high-schoolers who discover the dark underbelly of their seemingly innocuous suburb when their plan to blackmail a serial killer backfires. Woodland on the edge of town forms the hub of the sinister goings-on that follow the disappearance of a young schoolgirl. When Mark (Sebastian Gregory) unearths a fresh grave containing the remains of a backpacker, he and his friend James (Joshua Payne) decide to hunt down the killer themselves.

Roping in James' suggestible girlfriend Chasely (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence), they hatch a plot to blackmail the killer into murdering a local ex-con (a menacing Michael Dorman) who has tormented them since childhood.

The three young actors are green but convincing and Joel Edgerton is suitably frightening as the eerily calm sociopath hiding behind the facade of a middle-class family man. There's a nice little twist and, apart from a wincingly amateurish sex scene, Hewitt keeps a tight rein on the escalating sense of peril.

Production company: Stewart and Wall Entertainment.  Cast: Joel Edgerton, Belinda McClory, Michael Dorman, Joshua Payne, Sebastian Gregory. Director: Jon Hewitt. Screenwriters: Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause, Jon Hewitt. Executive producers: Grant Bradley, Gary Hamilton and Ian Gibbons. Producers: Richard Stewart and Penny Wall. Director of photography: Mark Pugh.  Production designer: Michelle Sotheren. Music: David Franzke. Costume designer: Vanessa Loh. Editor: Simon Martin. No rating, 88 minutes.

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