After a night of carousing, the amateur photo model Zina heads for a fashion shoot in the nature, accompanied by the ambitious Mia, apathetic Dragica and snobby photographer Blitcz. On the idyllic location, a supposedly ordinary fashion shoot soon turns into a fierce fight for survival.
Let’s face facts here – the horror scene is at its strongest when it is populated by a wide range of voices, from the veterans who created our childhood favorites to the brand new, first time filmmakers who aren’t afraid to try something new. Even better is when a variety of different voices are all mixed in as well, bringing us visions from all over the world. There is a distinct flavor of horror that comes from Germany or France or Japan or Mexico, as each style brings with it a bit of the background and history and political climate of their own unique cultures. And so it is exciting to see what an Iranian vampire movie (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) looks like, or to compare a gory splatter movie from New Zealand (Dead Alive) to one from Germany (Das Komabrutale Duell). Well, here comes a new perspective for us to keep an eye out for: writer/director Tomaz Gorkic (who has a number of short films to his credit, but just this first full length effort) and Artsploitation Films have brought us Killbillies (aka Idila), which is being recognized as the first horror film out of Slovenia (in Central Europe, formerly part of Yugoslavia).
I’ll be honest, when I first heard the title Killbillies, I had some negative thoughts bouncing around my head – a poorly written torture movie with a bad rockabilly soundtrack kept insisting itself from deep in my cranium. Luckily, the film I saw was nothing like I imagined, and besides, never judge a book by its cover, right? (But Idila is a much better title.) Instead, we have a bleak, ugly story set in the picturesque countryside of Slovenia, with a backdrop of majestic mountains and green forests.
Quite the juxtaposition, as the audience is lulled into a nervous calm before the hammer is violently dropped. The story draws from the classic “don’t go in the woods” horror trope, with photographer Blitcz (Sebastian Cavazza) and his models, the bubbly, easily irritated Mia (Nika Rozman) and the hard, cynical Zina (appropriately named, and played by Nina Ivanisin) meeting up with Dragica (Manca Ogorevc) on a secluded meadow for a photo shoot. This quickly goes bad when thuggish locals, Francl and Vintlr (Lotos Sparovec and Jurij Drevensek, respectively), show up and hassle them, claiming it is not their land to be use. The altercation quickly goes bad, and soon our protagonists find themselves locked away and under threat of torture or worse.
Killbillies has a bit in common with films like Wrong Turn, The Hills Have Eyes, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while also reflecting on some issues being dealt with both in Slovenia and many other places around the world, primarily the clash between tradition and technological advances often shown as the struggle between the “urban” and the “rural.” There’s a good and a bad way to do this, and thankfully Gorkic and crew go in the right direction – it’s easy to show the “backwoods” people as dumb and uncivilized and simple and downright ugly, but it means a lot more when we can see them as actual human beings. It goes back to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the question of whether or not Leatherface and his family are 100% evil; after all, they were minding their own business when a bunch of kids started trespassing on their property, wandering through their house. This time it’s not quite as vague, as Francl and Vintlr are certainly the aggressors here, but at least they are shown as human beings and not just amoral monsters.
There is quite a bit of disturbing violence throughout Killbillies, and the tone of the film starts mid-range, not depressing but not abundantly happy, but quickly gets dark and hopeless and stays that way for the entirety of the picture. A handful of brutal kills make this appealing to the blood and guts crowd, but it’s the building of tension that really impressed me (I mean, the blood and guts were pretty cool too). It’s nice to see a first time director able to both acknowledge his inspirations while also fitting them in to his own world, and I think Gorkic absolutely succeeds in this area.
None of the actors are names a typical horror audience would recognize (this is Slovenia’s first horror film, after all), but all do their job well, with no weak characters to drag down an otherwise good story.
I am excited to see more horror come from Slovenia, and it would appear I am not the only one – Killbillies has already racked up a handful of awards on the festival circuit, including “Best Film” from the 2015 Slovene Film Festival and the 2016 Weekend of Fear (Nuremberg, Germany) and “Best International Film” from the 2016 Nevermore Film Festival. While set in the present, this movie has a good 1970s American horror vibe going for it, making it perfect for anyone who loves the early works of Wes Craven or any of those other gritty, exploitative films that start with “Don’t…” or “The House by/at/near…”