The Lost Tribe (1985)


New Zealand. 1985.


Director/Screenplay – John Laing, Producers – John Laing & Gary Hannam, Photography – Thomas Burtsyn, Music – David Fraser, Art Direction – Gerry Luhman. Production Company – Meridian Film/Film Investment Corp NZ/The New Zealand Film Commission


John Bach (Edward Scarry/Max Scarry), Darren Takle (Ruth Scarry), Emma Takle (Katie), Martyn Sanderson (Thorne), Don Selwyn (Sergeant Swain)


A boatman takes supplies out to a remote Fjordland island where anthropologist Max Scarry is carrying out research on the lost Huwera Maori tribe. However, he finds the cabin deserted and no trace of Max. Investigating, police break into Max’s apartment on the mainland and find the body of a dead woman. Max’s wife and twin brother Edward head out to the island to try to solve the mystery of Max’s disappearance. However, once they are there, the island’s gloomy atmosphere begins to have an effect on Edward’s mind.

The Lost Tribe is a little-seen New Zealand feature. It was not even seen much in New Zealand when it came out. Director John Laing had had popular successes with Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1980), dramatizing the nationwide true-life Arthur Alan Thomas murder case, and the bicultural romance Other Halves (1984). Laing completed The Lost Tribe in 1982 but it remained unseen until 1985 and then not even outside the major centres.

John Laing certainly creates an incredible atmosphere out of the film – every frame broods in half-shadow; flickering, half-lit faces fill the screen; the score sits rising and falling by humming single note modulations to incredibly sinister effect; and there are suggestions of primal mysteries continually lurking beyond the edge of the frame. The mounting paranoia that Laing draws out on both nights in the cabin is very good and the scene where John Bach sits on the stone symbol is incredibly eerie. The Lost Tribe is the only New Zealand film yet to capture the hauntingly still oppressiveness of the South Island, Fjordland locations – all mist, still mirrored lakes and black mountains rising out of the water.

… BUT The Lost Tribe is also a thoroughly frustrating film, for absolutely nothing happens in it whatsoever. We never find out what the murdered girl has to do with anything in the film. Most of all, we never find out what is the meaning of the ending, which seems to give the impression that after undergoing a rite at the cave, the brother returns from somewhere, possibly as a ghost, and now takes over his twin’s body. A local screenwriting course I once attended made the apt complaint that New Zealand is a nation that lacks decent scriptwriters – that writers here seem only able to come up with two decent first acts but appear to have a block when it comes to delivering a third act payoff. They could have been talking about The Lost Tribe.

Since the 1990s, John Laing has been mostly working in New Zealand-shot US tv series. His one venture into genre material was the Disney Channel movie Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2006).

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