One of the most common tropes in horror movies is that a group of young, likable characters are going to find themselves in in a dangerous and scary situation. Camping, a cabin in the woods, a boat, a trip to an exotic locale, all revolve around the likeability of the characters because without that, do you really care if they survive the night? If they’re sufficiently unlikeable, you might even root for their gory demise, something that serves as a counterpoint to this most common of tropes.
That’s where the creepy 2023 Australian indie horror film The Hanged Girl (originally released as The Haunting at Saint Joseph’s) takes some interesting chances because most of its cast of young adults aren’t actually very likable at all, and by the time the film winds down with its inevitable murder and mayhem, it’s hard to feel invested in any of the characters.
The film revolves around the upcoming marriage of young Muslim doctor Lily Khan (Tal Hymans), who is engaged to fellow doc Kit (Alec Snow). They’ve invited a group of friends, including Kit’s unstable sister Rachel (Tara Jay), to join them for a weekend engagement adventure at the fabled converted church and guesthouse St Joseph’s. It’s not only haunted, it’s quite the tourist attraction for the small Melbourne suburb, as we learn when they visit the local pub and get all the gossip from the barkeep.
We learn that the young friends enjoy pranking each other, which veers into an overly intense ritual with Lily that comes as rather a surprise to the viewers. But that’s just the tip of their interactions, which bounce back and forth from shared fun to outright hostility, particularly between Lily and Rachel. An already rough character, Rachel can’t stand the idea of losing her beloved older brother to Lily and begins to suspect everything about Lily, including the legitimacy of her Muslim beliefs. Followers of Islam might find this particular storyline upsetting with its cynical implications.
Things between the group fall apart from that point, and soon the friends aren’t feeling very friendly towards each other. But is it ghosts, evil spirits, or something else that’s causing everyone to descend into violent delusions and poor behavioral choices? And will our central couple remain committed to their impending nuptials by the time the weekend ends?
This is a very competently assembled horror film with beautiful Australian exteriors and a good rhythm to the edits. The actors are good, though some are more into their roles than others, as is typical with indie cinema. The problem is that director Jon Cohen fails to build sufficient empathy towards the main characters before the mayhem begins, which leaves the viewer hoping for a few rapid deaths to simplify the situation. They do not, of course, happen. The result is a rather unsatisfying horror film that has only a peripheral association with the titular hanged girl and her clichéd mythology.