Blood on the tracks
When The Sixth Sense burst onto our screens in 1999, becoming the most successful horror film of the modern era (and perhaps the biggest horror movie of all time, if this study is to be believed), it did more than just stun a generation of filmgoers with one of cinema’s biggest bait-and-switches since Psycho (other notable examples: Planet of the Apes, The Usual Suspects and Fight Club) and launch M. Night Shyamalan on a career of diminishing returns: it also spawned a rash of imitators, with countless screenwriters (including M. Night himself, with Unbreakable and The Village) falling over themselves to concoct increasingly twisty narratives. The audience very quickly got wise: within a few short years, they were primed to glance at their feet, in case the rug was about to be pulled out from under them. Many fine films (Identity and Shutter Island spring to mind) could be ruined if it became obvious that a twist was coming, because from a few strokes of narrative setup, it was possible to guess the so-called ‘surprise’ ending. A decade and a half on, it’s even more difficult to truly wrong-foot the alert cinemagoer, so it’s laudable that filmmakers are still willing to give it a try – and vital that they have more than one trick up their sleeve.
Which brings us to the new film from Michael Petroni, who wrote Possession (2008) and The Rite (2011) – not to mention The Book Thief and the second Chronicles of Narnia movie – and has now stepped behind the camera to direct his latest psychological thriller, Backtrack, which is being marketed as “The Sixth Sense meets Insidious” but is good enough to stand on its own feet. Still traumatised by the death of his daughter, Evie, in a road traffic accident, psychiatrist Peter Bower (Adrien Brody in even-more-haunted-than-usual mode) has begun seeing patients again. The problem is, they’re all dead. Are they trying to tell him something? Is this one of those the-dead-won’t-be-laid-to-rest-until-the-truth-is-uncovered kind of deals, a subgenre best exemplified by Ringu and its better-known US remake, The Ring? Well, yes – but there’s more to the story than meets the eye, as audiences will discover when they think they have the story sussed and realise there’s about half the film’s running time still to go.
“I see dead patients,” Bower’s business card might read, and pretty soon the troubled shrink figures out that the ghosts he is seeing are trying to tell him something, perhaps related to a catastrophic train wreck that happened when Bower was a boy, in the Australian backwater where his dad (Bruce Spence) was Sheriff. Dredging up the past is often unpopular in a place where most of the locals would prefer to keep even the darkest secrets buried, but with Bower’s sanity at stake, he heeds the advice of his own psychiatrist (Sam Neill) and begins to dig around in the traditional places, including newspaper archives, as well as the scene of the accident itself. And what he ultimately uncovers is more terrifying than any ghost…
I’m not sure what Michael Petroni made of the adaptations of his previous horror scripts, Possession and The Rite, but by choosing to direct Backtrack himself, he has risen to the challenge of making the best possible film from his own material, and demonstrates a strong visual sense, and the performances – particularly from Brody and Spence – are uniformly strong. (The visual effects are pretty good, too: it isn’t every low budget film that can pull off a multi-car train wreck.) A good sense of narrative pace and a developing sense of mystery, coupled with the feeling that you’ve figured it all out before you have, contribute to a surprisingly effective psychological thriller that looks set to put New South Wales – and Michael Petroni – on the horror movie map.
BACKTRACK is released in the UK on January 29, via Arrow Films