Movies about cults are difficult to pull off well. At some point, we have to understand how right-thinking people would so completely give themselves over to another person’s control. If done well, in a movie like “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the effect can be insidious and unsettling, making us question if we’d be strong enough to resist under the same circumstances. If not does well, such as in Jonestown-esque “The Sacrament,” you wonder just how these rubes could so willingly march to their own destruction.
Falling somewhere in between is “One-Eyed Girl,” an Australian thriller that’s being released on DVD in the United States under the Dark Sky Films imprint. Dark Sky usually releases straight-up horror films, but “One-Eyed” is psychological horror if anything, a war of wills between two fallen healers. It looks terrific (first-time director Nick Matthews is a former cinematographer) and has some strong performances, but is narratively shaky.
Travis (Mark Leonard Winter) is a psychologist who blames himself for the suicide of a female patient — rightly so, since he seduced and manipulated her. Numb with grief, he wanders into a meeting of the cult, which at first seems like a typical support group where members stand up and bare their souls. Travis takes some solace from the group, and when he overdoses, it’s them who rescue him and take them back to their remote Adelaide farm to recuperate.
It’s at the farm that Travis meets Father Jay (Steve Le Marquand), the leader of the group. He’s an Iraq War veteran who promises to cleanse his followers of their inner pain, although his “cleansing” looks a lot like interrogation techniques that went on Abu Ghraib, including sensory deprivation, physical exertion and pummeling disciples with high-pressure water hoses.
Travis falls under Jay’s sway, and the film is keen enough to draw parallels between the two — a healer based in faith and a healer based in science, both deeply misguided in how they try to “save” others. But when Travis gets wise to some of the darker doings on the farm, “One-Eyed Girl” slips into a rather predictable horror-thriller mode, with carnage everywhere and Travis desperate to get out alive. It’s an unrelentingly bleak film both viscerally and emotionally, and while Matthews makes it as visually interesting as possible, by the end we’re as eager to escape as Travis.