This documentary about one of Australia's most notorious cults will chill you to the bone.

There's a universal expectation that docos are meant to run the gamut from confronting all the way to absolutely horrifying. In its 97 minutes of screen time, The Family manages to traverse the whole scale, leaving you absolutely chilled to the bone.

Rosie Jones's poetic documentary is about one of Australia's most notorious cults, known as 'The Family'. It operated in and around Melbourne from the mid 1960s, under the leadership of a bizarre woman whose look appears to have been modeled on Yzma from The Emperor's New Groove. Anne Hamilton-Byrne drew power and money to herself, wielding her impressive charisma, emotional manipulation, and yoga to amass new followers. Before long they were snatching babies directly from hospital wards and were administering LSD to adults and children in order to convince them that Anne was their God.

Dramatic panning drone shots of Lake Eildon, eerie piano music, and old footage of children in matching outfits running through the woods creates a very True Detective aesthetic that matches the horror of the events. The film churns your guts, growing more and more tense as events unfold, leaving you shaken when it finally ends.

But where the documentary differentiates itself is with the surfeit of interviews with survivors. Many of the children who grew up at the cult's residence at Lake Eildon (a two-hour drive from Melbourne) are adults now, with children of their own, and they each speak candidly and emotionally about the toll their childhood had on them and how they now relate to their new families. The story of the cult itself is fascinating and grotesque, but the humanity and candour of the victims is absolutely redeeming.

Jones doesn't always succeed in translating a messy chain of events and conflicting accounts into a digestible, linear format. At times it can feel as though the film circles back on the same events – although even then, the story is so consuming that you'll be willing to forgive the repetition. Moreover, unlike many documentaries, The Family hits close to home, with the familiar sites and sounds of country Australia compounding the sense of unease.

Published on March 07, 2017 by Imogen Baker

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