2019 | DIR: MARK BAKAITIS | STARRING: SAARA LAMBERG, ALBERT GOIKHMAN, JANE BADLER, DEAN KIRKRIGHT | REVIEW BY GLENN COCHRANE.
The work of director Mark Bakaitis is synonymous with the underground cinema-scene of Australia, with his transgressive, neo-punk, Melbourne-centric point of view permeating music videos and documentaries by the likes of Spiderbait, Chopper Reid, Bodyjar and The Fauves. His first feature film – Norcosys (2000) - was a festival hit and showcased an incredible degree of precision and ambition as it boasted a Blade Runner-esque cityscape full of cyber punk infusions and neon-drenched effects.
19-years later, following a long showcase of shorts, docos and music vids, Bakaitis returns with his second feature-length film, CULT GIRLS, a subversive and nightmarish odyssey of witchcraft and heavy metal, told with a perpetual state of surrealism and fatalistic resolution.
The synopsis is not easy to articulate, nor is the film itself, as it revolves around Dalia (Saara Lamberg), a woman rescued from a pagan apocalyptic cult on the night of a sacrificial ritual, leaving her two sisters behind. Several years later, overwrought with guilt, she sets about finding the cult and, in turn, her sisters. Her inquisition leads her to a mysterious and infamous black metal musician, Moloch (Albert Goikhman), who lives burrowed beneath a dense forest, hours from civilisation. His cryptic and imperious rhetoric sends Dalia on a hellish descent into depravity and madness, as her world becomes a grotesque regression of ritual, death and depravity.
I'll be honest and state for the record that I was baffled by CULT GIRLS, but at the end of the day, he has projected a gothic tapestry on the screen that provides ample food for thought and an all-immersive atmosphere. He presents his story with layers of shade and relishes the various depths of darkness he's able to submerge the audience in. Like a bastard child of Eraserhead and Häxan, his visceral expression is more important than whatever narrative he's telling.
The content is often confronting and while not quite as explicit as Jonas Åkerlund's recent Lords of Chaos, CULT GIRLS occupies the same sphere. With a deep goth sensibility, the film plays out like an extended music video and polarises the audience with its ambiguity. Some will relish its rich textures and sense of style, while others will reject the incoherent narrative. Lamberg gives a captivating turn as Dalia, playing amongst the atmosphere with her own mysterious sense of elusiveness and mystique. Goikhman gleefully assumes his reaper-like rockstar persona with relish and delivers an uncharacteristically sombre performance. Additional players include Jane Badler as the high witch, Dean Kirkright as Dalia's companion and Whitney Duff as the Fire Pagan. It is an ensemble of familiar local faces and all are good.
Even now as I write this review and attempt to comprehend its underlying themes and messages, I struggle to arrive at a comprehensive conclusion. I hesitate to compare the film to Argento's Three Mothers Trilogy because CULT GIRLS is nowhere near that calibre of artistry, but I think there's a reasonable semblance. Mark Bakaitis is a unique artisan with an unmistakable mind for imagery, and where his new film struggles to form a comprehensive narrative, it compensates with style and expression. It may or may not resonate with people right now, but perhaps it will – to its advantage – garner a niche and loyal following in the years to come.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: WRITER/DIRECTOR MARK BAKAITIS ON THE AUSTRALIAN FOLK-HORROR FILM “CULT GIRLS”
By MICHAEL HELMS
After five years in the works, CULT GIRLS, by Australian filmmaker Mark Bakaitis, finally hit the big screen for its world premiere at the current Fangoria x Monster Fest 2019 in Melbourne, Australia (see the trailer below). Powered by folk horror, melded with the supernatural and the well-publicized Australian story of a real-life cult the Family (also the subject of a feature documentary and numerous print and TV news items), CULT GIRLS follows young Dalia (Saara Lamberg) as she sets out to reclaim her past as a member of a cult who, among other things, regularly dosed their dyed-blonde children with LSD. Along the way, Dalia discovers that her former captors/benefactors are deeply and historically involved with the occult and other, much more nefarious activities than she ever suspected. Characters she meets include cult leader Ragana (Jane Badler from V) and death metal prophet Moloch (Albert Goikhman).
CULT GIRLS grew out of the opportunity for Bakaitis to shoot some footage of his ancestral home of Lithuania. Here, he learned of the local prevalence of folk horror in everyday life—and realized that he needed a screenplay to turn his atmospheric and distinctive footage into a feature. “We always knew that we could only shoot so much over there and that we’d have to come back and build the script around it,” says Bakaitis on a gloomy winter’s morning in Melbourne. “It sort of held the screenplay back a little. I tried to work with Mia Kate Russell and a few other people but eventually realized that I would just have to do it. In the end, I was very happy to include the images we shot in Europe into the final film, structured with the voiceover of the black metal character.
“It took a long time to get the script going,” he continues, “and then getting the money in stages. It was such a tough process. In the end, I just wanted a nice sound mix and composition and grade. No local funding bodies came through, but due to having Jane Badler in the film, I got two U.S. executive producers to invest in the film and was able to finish it off in LA. This was an amazing and daunting experience. My sound mixer had worked on some incredible films like INDEPENDENCE DAY, DON’T BREATHE and EVIL DEAD, so I felt I was in pretty good hands with him.”
When it came to CULT GIRLS’ subject matter and mood, Bakaitis was influenced by the work of Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, and other pagan-centric films such as BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, THE WICKER MAN, WITCHFINDER GENERAL and THE DEVILS. “My grandparents migrated to Australia from Lithuania,” he notes, “and it always seemed to be such a mystical place. My grandfather was a devout Christian, yet he would still have these statues of pagan devils around the house, which fascinated me.”
CULT GIRLS is making its way into the world in the midst of a folk-horror boom, and Bakaitis remarks, “During the period I made CULT GIRLS, it was interesting to see all these films emerge like THE WITCH and MIDSOMMAR. There seems to be a revival of ritualistic horror films that are more psychological than slasher. They make you think more intensely about what you’ve watched. For example, I couldn’t stop thinking about MARTYRS for a week after I first watched it. Even HEREDITARY. You look back at that for a second time, and suddenly all the clues you didn’t see in the first place become so obvious. I was aiming for something like that with CULT GIRLS. We’ve got some deeper levels. If people do know a little bit about the occult, pagan things and black metal, then they might want to learn a little bit more.”
Bakaitis previously made NARCOSYS (starring Mia Kate Russell as a character called Matrix), a cyberpunk actioner set in 2018 that nabbed Best Film at the 2000 Melbourne Underground Film Festival and saw U.S. DVD release in 2003. CULT GIRLS already has an Australian distributor, Umbrella Entertainment, and is looking to spread the fear around the world in the coming year.
HORRORNEWS.NET - CULT GIRLS
A detailed review of Cult Girls from Berlin Revolution Film Festival by Head Programmer Andrija Jovanovic.
The second feature film by the director Mark Bakaitis uses the elements of folk horror in creating a complex narrative and visual collage. The plot draws its inspiration from the authors native Lithuania and its rich pagan history, that long has repelled the attempts of Christianisation, as well as from the influence of the occult groups, present in modern day societies. These elements are combined with the visual aesthetics of the Black- and Gothic Metal music videos and the underground films, in which the limits in the production have been turned into specific aesthetic characteristic.
On the structural level the film introduces a number of different elements: the visual language features different styles, raging from the aesthetics of the TV films and music videos to precise camera language of the cinema. The decision to incorporate different visual levels might come from the wish to pull the focus from the narrative in favor of a dream-like atmosphere, where realities, past and present intertwine, and dream-like state is being established. The connection between the scenes would rely more on the associative and atmospheric-, rather than consequential principle of the classical narrative. The dream-like sequences have the most compact form, camerawork and imagery in the film and the sound create a vivid backdrop that easily absorbs the consciousness and attention of the viewer.
The problem occurs with the transitions between diverse visuals, so different in style, rhythm and established levels of reality. These transitions are not smooth, nor they are supported by the editing, therefore the viewer encounters constant obstacles that prevent him to stay immersed into the reality established in the film. This might be on purpose: the viewer experiences harsh awakenings, like after a trance or a hallucination. The dream-like reality is abruptly interrupted and we are forced back to a wake state. Yet these changes occur more often, even between the scenes that are not suggesting specific mind state. Changes in the visual quality acquire the disruptive role and prevention of the continuous engagement of the viewer point into direction of the very nature of the medium. This way the film demands the active engagement of the viewer from the beginning till the very end. Its demanding structure is dedicated first and foremost to the fans of the genre, who will appreciate it for its specific aesthetic and genre-related qualities and care less about the successful narrative flow that would allow deeper immersion into its reality.
By constantly preventing us from developing empathically connections and reminding us of the nature of the medium we watch, the film puts us into position where we have either to accept or refuse to follow what is happening on the screen. This has an interesting outcome relating to its subject: we are allowed only to stay an observer of the story, distanced from its nightmarish happenings. The same distance is not allowed to the protagonists of the film, entangled into the web of mysterious deadly cult, which dose their children with drugs and sacrifice them during its ritual. Also not in the real-life: by deciding to accept its doctrine, the follower of the cult turns the blind eye to the critical distancing and intuition, sinking deeper and deeper into its whirlpool.
Meanwhile, Cult Girls remains obviously what it is – a fiction. It unfolds in the manner of one and a half-hour long music video, that let us enjoy its rich imagery, playfulness and atmosphere while letting us retain critical distance to its disturbing subject.