Unfortunately, due to other commitments, I only made it to one film on the promising program at this year’s A Night of Horror Film Festival in Sydney (20-30 November 2014). This was Matthew A. Brown’s hyper-stylised rape-revenge thriller Julia, a film which takes us into a netherworld of transgressive violence as it charts the dark blossoming of its protagonist.
Very early on we learn that Julia‘s titular heroine is the survivor of a particularly calculated gang rape and attempted murder. She returns to her job without reporting the crime and in its aftermath negotiates life with furtive, almost wordless anxiety, until a chance encounter with a group of mysterious women offers the prospect of help through unconventional therapy. Julia (Ashley C. Williams) begins sessions with the charismatic Dr Sgundud (Jack Noseworthy) and guided by the doctor’s beautiful accolyte Sadie (Tahyna Tozzi) is propelled through a series of increasingly bloody rituals with dreamlike inevitability.
On an aesthetic level, Julia is beautifully constructed, its glossy-lipped femmes fatales illuminated by lurid splashes of colour as they move through murky bars to the beat of a pulsing, trancelike soundtrack. Rape sequence aside, the emphasis is on the sensual and erotic. What the film lacks, despite strong performances from Williams and Tozzi, is depth of characterisation or much insight into sexual violence. In fact, Julia is not so much a film about rape as it is a dark fantasy that deploys rape as a narrative foil for its heroine’s fetishised violence.
It’s not unique in this regard, of course; the rape-revenge genre is not renowned for nuanced portrayals. However, recent female-directed features like the Soska Sisters’ American Mary (2012) and Karen Lam’s Evangeline (2013) demonstrate that it is possible to make horror movies that engage with these issues in much more complex and thoughtful ways. Crucially, the Soskas and Lam are at pains to develop their protagonists as individuals. Brown’s Julia, in contrast, can be reduced to the polar archetypes of cowed victim and vengeful siren. The supporting characters, including Sadie and Dr Sgundud, are even sketchier.
That’s not to imply Brown’s intentions for Julia were the same as the Soskas’ and Lam’s for their respective films. I think Brown wanted to make something slick and heightened and stylish, inspired by the Korean and Japanese revenge thrillers he cited during the post-film Q & A – and in this he and his team succeeded. But more attention to the psychology and relationships underpinning the spectacle would have deepened Julia‘s impact significantly.