13 June 2004 | RareSlashersReviewed
Brilliant Australian slasher that forever revokes the shame of Houseboat Horror...
As I've said before, it's an often-touted fact amongst those who know their horror movies that the Australians haven't exactly excelled themselves with the level of their output within the slasher genre. It's fairly ironic then that within the space of a month I've found two credible efforts that successfully manage to disprove that age-old fallacy. First I came across the creepy Cassandra, which mixed erratic photography and razor sharp editing to a surprisingly credible effect. Then I discovered the ambitiously restrained and meritoriously tense Symphony of Evil. Taking a large slice of Halloween's appetizing pie and filling the spaces with a few Hitchcockian nods just for good measure, this confident TV movie is perhaps one of the most commendable and long forgotten late entries to the stalk and slash cycle. It succeeds mainly because it chooses to follow the path of down to earth realism over farfetched gore and gratuitous shock tactics. For example, the heroine of the feature is not an archetypal buxom bimbo that's played simply for eye candy instead of character. She's a life-like young woman that finds herself in a tricky situation, which helps to give the film an undeniably naturalistic edge. Director Craig Nahiff also accepts with glee, the challenge of giving his female characters complete control of the script without relying on sexual overtones to make them appealing. There's no needless nudity or even any slight references towards it; and to be honest, it isn't something that's missed. Surprisingly enough, and adding further flame to the Film's girl power' agenda, the only male that's signifigant in the screenplay finds himself thrown at the mercy of his ex-wife (now there's a thought) in order to help him prove his innocence!
Symphony of Evil even boasts a classy score that's vaguely reminiscent of John Williams' theme from Oliver Stone's masterpiece JFK. After it plays over the credit sequence, we're thrown headfirst into the action. A car pulls up outside an apartment block in the middle of the night, and out steps a young student. She kisses her female partner goodbye, then heads up the staircase into the building. We also see that there's a suspicious looking character lurking around in the shadows trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Once inside her flat, the youngster takes off her coat and gets changed to the strains of a Rossini Symphony. Suddenly, there's a frantic knock at the door. She opens it and a masked stranger that's immediately (and rather obviously) reminiscent of Jamie Blanks' psycho from the tawdry Valentine - greets her. There's a brief struggle, but the maniac easily overpowers her, and the last thing we see is her body hurtle through a glass window and land with a thud on the cold hard concrete floor below, artistically splashing a small trickle of blood over a white rose in the shrubbery. The suspicious looking guy that was standing outside approaches the victim, and attempts to resuscitate her; but she struggles, which effectively makes him look like the culprit. This fact is further proven by a gang of spectators shouting, `Stop that man he's killing her' from their windows! The luckless fellow panics and legs it off into the night, grabbing a strange key that the girl was clenching tightly in her hand as he leaves.
Some time later, the victim's neighbour - Kate Martin () returns home to the scene, which by now is shrouded with Police cars and ambulances. It was her friend, Anna that we just saw assaulted, but luckily she's still alive (barely) and on her way to intensive care. Meanwhile, the local constabulary, who must've received their Law Enforcement training from the Salvation Army, (simply because they catch him about five times, only to mindlessly let him escape again), are pursuing the accused through some sewers. Down at the station, Detective Turner questions Kate and Anna's musical lecturer the emotionally overwrought DR. Steiner - who informs us that the girl was ambivalent about her desires' and also that she didn't have too many friends. Whilst at the Nick, Kate catches a brief peak of the artist's impersonation of the guy seen standing over the body, and she's a little more than surprised that it looks uncannily like her ex-husband
Kate returns to her apartment, where low and behold, the bloke who was framed for the violent attack visits her. It is of course Mike, her ex-hubby, who's much more loveable rogue than homicidal maniac, so us viewers know that he has just got to be in the clear. Unfortunately, he dropped that strange key down the drain, which has pretty much scrambled his chance of easily proving his innocence. He believes that Anna is the only one that can get him out of bother and asks Kate if he can borrow her car to get to the hospital. He even attempts to add a little charm, by remarking, `C'mon for old times sake.' His ex-Missus agrees, but doesn't let him leave without adding the sarcastic remark, `I hated the old times and the new ones aren't any better!'
Mike arrives at the hospital to try and put himself in the clear, but he isn't the only person that's decided on an after hours visit. The masked killer doing a very credible Michael Myers impersonation has also turned up, and let's just say, that Mike's illusions of being a free man have just been effectively shattered. Even more so, because an officer has just caught him inexplicably running away from the scene of the murder. I don't think that any amount of charm's going to get him out of this one! His ever-faithful ex-wife visits him, and reluctantly decides to help clear his name. Even if she does feel sympathetic concerning the fate of her ex-partner, the real reason that she intervenes is purely down to a dangerous curiosity that looks obvious to have strong repercussions on her own good self later in the runtime. Much of the following plot line is filled with clues and twists that I'd be bang out of order to spoil for you, so I'll just run through some of the highlights.
Remember that schoolyard urban legend about someone's neighbour that had his car stolen, only to have it returned a few day later? So the story went: upon searching the freshly delivered automobile, inside the victim a note and two opera tickets offered as an apology. Of course, whilst the unfortunate individual was basking in this opportunistic gift, the thief came back and rather brazenly burgled his house and re-claimed the car. The genius of course, was the fact that he knew exactly how long he had to commit the impeccably planned deed. Well judging by the year this was released, it could have been this smart psychopath that boosted that yarn into public awareness and caused it to be spun continuously throughout the world ever since. Yep, sure enough, between mimicking Mr Myers' habit of hiding behind washing lines and stalking Kate from the shadows whilst making a creepy point of holding a bright red rose in one hand, this cheeky maniac re-enacts that legend to perfection. He even goes as far as to turn up later at the opera and suspense-fully chase the heroine and her comical Johnny Cash loving buddy out of the theatre!
But for real nail biting suspense par excellence, nothing can beat the part in which the sword brandishing assassin murders Detective Turner. Check some of the photography as he pursues the baffled officer along a claustrophobic corridor and then slices her to shreds. The beauty of the sequence being that it is carried out with only the smallest drops of blood being spilled, a la John Carpenter - fantastic! Of course, the final scene is equally as impressive, utilising a great use of carefully built shock tactics and razor sharp tension as Kate finds someone's chilled out corpse in a Smokey freezer. There are also some of my favourite horror-fied objects littering the place too; I just can't see how those nightmare-inducing mannequins cannot terrify anyone!
One thing that I haven't yet mentioned about Nahiff's debut is the fact that it resolves around the classical music that the girls study, thus giving the director the chance to include some instantly recognisable operatic cuts that make for an authentic and undeniably agreeable ingredient. There are simply loads of other wonderful elements to appreciate about Symphony of Evil. These include: fairly comfortable performances from the effortlessly likeable leads, and more importantly, it looks like the director was well aware of his budget restrictions, but managed to spend the funds he had wisely and in the right places. For example, Frank Stragio's score does wonders to help create the atmosphere, which works because in the moments where not a lot happens, you're always aware, that something's just about too. Even though this may have lifted more than a slight nod of inspiration from Halloween and its follow-up (the killer stalking the hospital, the Michael Myers-alike disguise et cetera), it's probably one of the few efforts that almost comes close to sharing a slice of its glory.
Although the revelation of the killer's identity is hardly jaw dropping, there's really not much wrong with Symphony of Evil. It's filled with suspense, realistic characters and it has to be said, tonnes of cheesy antics! (Watch out for some of the dialogue between Kate and her humorous buddy!) This may be a tad too archetypal to share a perch with Halloween and Black Christmas, but it sits comfortably alongside such classics as Curtains, Terror Train and Intruder - yes, it is that good. Despite earning the respect to be trusted with bigger budgets from this offering, Nahiff never bettered his work on this atmospheric murder-mystery. Heaven's Burning was a so-so thriller that had the added bonus of starring Russell Crowe, and his most recent movie Black and White was promising, but hardly a worthy follow-up to such an ambitious debut. It just goes to show that bigger budgets don't always make better movies, and he found the perfect medium with this made for TV classic.
The only real problem to be found here, is the fact that you may have quite a struggle uncovering a copy. As far as I'm aware, it hasn't yet seen the light of day on DVD and it's unlikely that it ever will. That's a real shame, because I seriously can't recommend this enough even to the slightest fans of psycho-killer entertainment. If you like slasher movies, then you'll like Symphony of Evil there's really nothing else to it. Perhaps if this had been a bigger hit, Australia would've lost its reputation for being below par when it comes to horror filmmaking. It seems surprising that films like the insipid Houseboat Horror or the rancid Cut manage to live on in reputation, but a real treat like this disappears from the face of the planet? Still, I suggest you start up a favourite search on ebay and just hope that there are still a few copies floating around. That's where I got mine from and it only cost £1.99 a real bargain! This is well worth the effort of tracking down