The Horseman (Aust-2008; dir. Steven Kastrissios)
The title of this independent revenge thriller is a reference to Revelations 6:8 and its horseman of the Apocalypse: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death…” It encapsulates much about the nature, tone and themes of director Kastrissios’ powerful movie.
The Horseman veers toward drama rather than the more gaudy generic qualities that its genesis as a “revenge” flick might suggest. Though violent and unflinching, with excellent fight sequences choreographed by King Kong alumni Chris Anderson, it is powerfully emotional as it attempts to depict not just gruesome retribution but also what would drive an ordinary man to throw his life away by becoming an avenging killer.
Christian is a father whose daughter has been found dead in an alley, having choked on her own vomit. At the same time he receives a porn video in the mail — a video in which his daughter “stars” — and it sends him on a quest to find out what really happened. Torturing information from each culprit as he follows the links from one to the next, he leaves an escalating body count in his wake. Only a young woman he picks up along the way, who reminds him of his lost daughter, offers him any salvation — but already it may be too late.
The film starts mid-action and relies on the story itself to fill in necessary background through the narrative’s imagery and dramatically tight dialogue rather than lengthy flashbacks. It becomes part of the film’s driving force. Lead Peter Marshall’s performance is stunning, both hard-hitting and subtle, combining anger, despair and utter fragility in every action, every word.
The Horseman is an impressive work. Acknowledging its small budget is in this case not necessary in order to justify any technical or conceptual flaws, but does emphasise what a remarkable achievement it really is.
Steven Kastrissios: Riding with the Horseman
Steven Kastrissios is a young Brisbane filmmaker whose debut thriller, The Horseman, recently premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival. If the result is anything to go by, he is destined for great things.
Undead Backbrain: So Steve, what is The Horseman about?
Steven Kastrissios: Revenge. In the beginning we don’t even know if there’s been a crime. It’s just that the protagonist’s daughter has died. He gets a porn video sent to him anonymously, showing her in a very questionable situation, and so he follows the links to whoever was involved in it. He wants to find out what happened, who was responsible — and as he does the body count rises.
UB: How would you characterise the film in genre terms?
SK: It’s a revenge movie so there’s lots of blood and guts, but the whole point was to take that B-grade, very popular, well-trodden concept and treat it really, really seriously. How would the scenario really go down? Yet though revenge-action in concept, The Horseman has the qualities of a drama. I suppose if I had to characterise the film to a general audience, it’s a Hollywood story made with the sensibilities of a European-style film. Among Australian genre films, the closest I could compare it to is Wolf Creek. But that’s a slasher film and this is revenge and the way the audience responds is quite different. There’s very high emotional engagement with Christian [the father]. The violence is not silly or over-the-top, it’s not cartoony, it’s not clichéd. I wanted it to be real. The lead actor Peter Marshall delivers a phenomenal performance.
UB: How does the Australian setting make a difference?
SK: Often in American films everyone’s running around with guns and Uzis and other hardware. In Australia, with gun-control, it’s obviously a bit more difficult if you’re just an ordinary Aussie dad. So the protagonist uses tools that he’s pulled out of the garage. He doesn’t know what he’s doing; he’s just trying to piece together this crime.
UB: How did you manage the impressive action sequences?
SK: We had the stunt coordinator from Peter Jackson’s King Kong help us out there, Chris Anderson. He was probably the biggest name on our film. We were lucky in that we had two cameras, which allowed us to do very elaborate fight scenes. Having two cameras for the drama as well was amazing — there are so many big confrontational moments and having two cameras means that you don’t have to cut between the actors mid-scene. They can scream over the top of each other without needing to leave gaps in the lines. You can really see the result on film. It’s so dynamic.
UB: Your role was a varied one.
SK: I’m the writer, producer, director, editor, financier, digital colourist… Myself and my family put the money into the project through 10BA [a government tax incentive scheme, now defunct]. I used my house as collateral. We worked with a very humble budget — but most of the crew came on board for free, the cast worked for minimum wage and everyone came together because there’s not a lot of projects like this floating around Brisbane, or Australia for that matter. You know, where it’s a big genre film that goes all the way with action and blood-and-guts but the story takes itself seriously.
It’s a good example of how far money can go with the latest technology. Most of the post-production was done on my home Mac. I wasn’t planning to do as much as I did, but the software just got more and more sophisticated as we were making it, and I could do more, so I did.
UB: The film certainly doesn’t look “home-made”.
SK: It was shot in four weeks and we didn’t always have time to get the little scenes I might have wanted, so I just cut them out. It’s better for that tightness, I think. Very lean, and it doesn’t tell you too much.
UB: What is your own background in film?
SK: I don’t have any huge production credits. I’ve really just done my own thing since I was 14. Short films — genre films, horror films, but mainly action. I ran my own business doing wedding videos and home video editing — whatever paid the bills. I learnt as I went along. But the aim to make a feature was always there.
UB: What sort of response have you had so far?
SK: Really strong. The trick is that because we don’t have any big-name cinema actors in the film, distributors want to wait to see what the broader reaction is going to be at screenings and festivals. Many distributors that I talk to still haven’t learnt the lesson of Wolf Creek. The attitude is still “If it’s Aussie genre it goes straight to DVD.” But we’re talking to some who are a bit more ballsy and I’m hopeful.
UB: One criticism you often hear about Australian cinema is that it’s too arthouse for the market, so why release it widely?
SK: Well, we won’t get that response for this film. It’s definitely not too arthouse. It might be too violent for a lot of people. As I said earlier I wanted to treat the concept of revenge as realistically as possible and really explore how someone could delve into that world and throw their life away in the process. Some people relate to Christian straight away, while others simply see him as a psycho and don’t sympathise with him at all — and it’s funny how women seem to sympathise with him more than men. But everyone I’ve shown the film too has been deeply affected by it. Certainly not everyone can stomach the violence but that said it’s not a parade of gore. It’s the old trick that you hear it more than you see it and therefore it’s more effective. People are seeing this film as a horror-action thriller — and that’s fair enough, but it has great acting and strong drama, and there really can’t be too many genre films like this that can affect people so strongly that it brings them to tears.
UB: Thanks, Steve.
The Horseman is due for release in Australia soon.
Both the above review and interview were written for Black Magazine
and were published in issue 2 (2008)