On 20 May, 1999, policemen investigating the theft of computers and DVD players in the quiet rural town of Snowtown, 145km north of Adelaide, made a grisly discovery in the vault of a disused bank that would send shockwaves across Australia.
Cutting their way through a door sealed with plastic sheeting, they found several plastic barrels, inside which were the decomposing remains of eight bodies, suspended in acid.
“These policemen, who were very young, were suddenly faced with Australia’s worst serial killing,” says the Sydney-based filmmaker Justin Kurzel, whose disturbing debut feature, Snowtown, revisits the headline-grabbing case.
Snowtown acquired instant infamy, but only one of the final tally of 12 murder victims was actually killed there. The rest, like their killers – ringleader John Bunting, Mark Haydon, Robert Wagner and James Vlassakis, who turned Crown Witness – came from the grim, poor northern suburbs of Adelaide, two hours away.
The “Bodies in Barrels” murders, as they luridly became known, shocked and gripped Australians. At the time, though, no-one seemed particularly interested in exploring the complexity of their context.
“It was much easier to label it as a freak show,” says Kurzel. “The community went into lockdown, and it became a bit of a taboo subject to talk about.”
When a documentary was made, he says: “The only way these events could be investigated or brought to the screen was kind of as body counts. Everything was sensationalised.”
Bunting and his crew were portrayed simply as monsters. “They were not great people. But in terms of the in-depth look as to why and how this happened, and what sort of effect it had on the community and what place the community was in when the murders happened, I think no-one really wanted to discuss it or investigate it.”
Even Kurzel admits that he didn’t know much about the case when he received Shaun Grant’s screenplay. Daringly, it took the point of view of Vlassakis (played in the film by newcomer Luke Pittaway), who had been just 14 when Bunting came into his life and assumed the role of father figure.
A victim of sexual abuse, Vlassakis was easy prey for Bunting who, during the first half of the film, uses emotional and psychological manipulation to groom the youngster to be a killer. At around the half-way point, he participates in the brutal murder (the only one portrayed on screen, although clever storytelling makes you imagine you have seen more) of his sexually abusive half-brother, sinking him deeper into Bunting’s sadistic world.
“When I read the script, this relationship – and I guess how [Jamie] was seduced and coerced by John, and how John led him into this kind of evil – was really fascinating,” says Kurzel.
Growing up in Gawler, north of Adelaide, he had played football in the area where the murders took place, and had friends there as a child. As a result, he says, “I had a really strong curiosity as to why something this dark happened in a place that really formed me as a young adult.”
More to the point, he’d known a lot of boys from single parent families, like Vlassakis, who were “desperately searching for those kind of male mentors, and really searching for their own identity through older male figures in this area. So I could completely understand that dynamic.”
Kurzel was also intrigued by Bunting (charismatically played by TV actor Daniel Henshall), whose sociable nature defied the clichéd image of the serial killer as loner.
Originally from Queensland, he fitted in so well that people trusted him to look after their kids and attend parent-teacher interviews. Usually, as Kurzel observes, “serial killers are kind of hermits and work alone. Well, this guy was able, for six years, to work with three other perpetrators, and be very visible in the community. [When the murders were discovered] it wasn’t like, ‘Who is this person?’ It was someone who was a neighbour. It was all happening in suburbia. It was happening just down the road from a school. It was happening during the day.”
Part of the reason why Bunting was able to go on for so long, Kurzel believes, is that he seemed to offer people a way of breaking the cycle of sexual abuse that had afflicted the area for years. He compares Bunting’s arrival at the beginning of the film to that of a vigilante hero in a Western.
“John rides in on a bike and lights a bomb, and it was just like this perfect storm where he empowered everyone. He said, ‘You don’t deserve this. You are a victim in this and it’s now time to do something about it,’ and he created kind of an energy and life force within them all to really start to change.
“I definitely saw that in the character of Jamie: the kid who is pretty apathetic to the experiences and the situation around him, and who, I think, suddenly found a voice.”
When Kurzel and his team moved in to the community where the crimes took place, and started conducting interviews with locals, they discovered that many people were still under the illusion that Bunting’s victims were all paedophiles and sex offenders, whereas he’d also targeted the disabled and the vulnerable.
“My feeling is that he had an ideology at the beginning, and it’s definitely something we explored,” says Kurzel. “But he had this psychopathic nature and that ideology suddenly shifted into a very sadistic need to kill.”
If some people apparently found comfort in the idea that Bunting was just killing paedophiles, does that mean that the attitudes that allowed the murders to happen still exist there?
“Look, the subject of paedophilia and sexual abuse in the area is still a very volatile one,” he says. “It seemed to be, especially around the time of the murders, something that was being repeated and there seemed to be huge patterns of abuse … So there was a real sense of resentment and hatred and anger about why this had kept on happening, and, I guess, an understanding of how someone could have empowered somebody who had endured it.”
Vlassakis’s downward spiral into the darkness is harrowing and unrelenting. People have criticised Kurzel for not offering a moral resolution nor redemption but, the director says, that would have betrayed the truth. “I would have loved at the end to be able to go, ‘And Jamie rang the cops and they all went home.’ It would have been fantastic. But I didn’t have that luxury: he didn’t. It was more about a kid’s descent towards becoming the thing that John wanted him to become, which is a killer, and to view the world in the eyes of a killer.”
Understandably there were fears that Snowtown would be a slasher or a body count movie. By living and filming in the area where the killers operated, however, as well as casting key roles from there, the film-makers were able to convince people of their integrity. The result is a thoughtful if gruelling exploration of the relationships at the heart of the horror, and of a lost community so drained of hope and apathetic that it failed to see the terrible acts unfolding in its midst.
“To me it was always a cautionary tale about turning a blind eye to these kinds of disaffected places where you go, ‘Oh, it’s their problem,’” says Kurzel. “No, this is deeply, deeply connected to what relationship we have with each other and also with these types of communities that are everywhere, not just in Australia.
“The point of the film is that no-one [noticed] because no-one gave a shit about the people that were murdered. So it was about forgotten people. I think that was the tragedy of the events.”
Snowtown is out now