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Rating: *

It’s Friday night in 1994, and you stop at the video rental shop before going home to choose the night’s entertainment. The new releases have been taken, and the choices you have left are a comfort classic or a horror flick you always wanted to check out (but your parents were around, so Nightmare on Elm Street wouldn’t cut it). And there are only so many times you can watch Robocop before the anti-authority satire starts taking its toll. So the choice rests on a row of titles you’ve noticed before but never engaged with – maybe the title on the film promises, as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange says, “a bit of the old ultra-violence”. Perhaps the marketing team designed a lurid poster so titillating that you couldn’t imagine you’d be disappointed. Whatever the reason, there’s something alluring about the promise of an exciting thriller made with zest by unknown filmmakers. You’re thinking you might have stumbled upon an undiscovered gem, your go-to recommendation for years to come. You’re thinking you’re about to set a new trend, and you’ll be the coolest guy in school.

You grab a copy and head to the counter, hoping to notice a reaction from the clerk that tells you you’re in for a treat, but his jaded look, since he’s working after hours on a Friday night, doesn’t offer much. You also grab a jumbo pack of caramelised popcorn that sounds like a good idea at the time, but will later land you in a world of nausea once all the sugar is the only thing left pumping through your body.

But that’s a problem for future you. For now, as you pay and leave the shop, you have a fresh new VHS for a little film you bet is going to make your night. A neighbour is coming over for shenanigans. You’ve just ordered two large pizzas and a 2-litre bottle of Coke. There are lollies and biscuits in the pantry, as if the popcorn isn’t enough on its own.

The last person to rent the tape wasn’t kind and didn’t rewind, which is only a mild inconvenience. Gives you time to quickly gob two pieces of cheese garlic bread, and your dad the time to sit through a couple of minutes more of Friday Night Football before crankily wobbling his way out to the pub in time for the second half.

The sound of a VHS tape shifting its gears from Rewind to Play is one of those solemn sounds that have a Pavlovian effect on a whole generation. It’s up there with the dial-up modem and the Sega Mega-Drive intro screen. After fast-forwarding through the disclaimers, you always have time to watch the trailers, but this time you don’t seem to recognise any of the titles – there’s a Canon Films romantic musical with Shaba Doo, a Hollywood Pictures thriller with Nastassja Kinski, and a steroid-fuelled-fest with Frank Zagarino.

This is the nostalgic afterglow you get as you start watching Girl at the Window in 2022. For a moment, there’s a gnawing feeling in the back of your mind that this may not have the potential you were projecting, but look – Radha Mitchell is in it. Who doesn’t love Radha Mitchell?

As you watch the movie, you relive that 1994 time when every new ticking minute felt like your Friday night was slipping away from you. The glow of the television isn’t enough to light up the living room.. Your fingers are uncomfortably sticky from your 2020s caramelised popcorn, and none of it is giving you an enjoyable rush. Nothing is thrilling. Not the mystery. Not the plot. Not even the protagonist’s sense of danger. You suddenly realise that you are in 1994, for this moment can only exist in that time and that place.

When the film is over, you look at your fellow movie watcher with a sense of defeat, unsure whether anything can salvage the rest of the night, and as you awkwardly say your goodbyes, you think that if this is the last time you see your friend, then you know why the friendship drifted apart.

Is Girl at the Window self-aware? The title may be tongue-in-cheek, but nothing of the movie’s content has a satirical undertone. The dialogue is aggressively plain, too plain to laugh at. When you’re watching something that’s “so bad that it’s good”, at least there’s an enjoyable catharsis. Girl at the Window offers nothing like that.

Radha Mitchell plays a mother who is romantically involved with a neighbour who may or may not be a serial killer. Her daughter, played by Ella Newton, is the only one who suspects something’s afoot, and there’s scant reason for her suspicions. Another character, the daughter’s friend, has the personality trait “horny teenager”. And nothing more. Not one character, and I mean not one, has any depth. The plot twist at the end is the only effort in the entire film to give a character some seasoning, by revealing the person has “a dark side we haven’t seen before”.

But here’s the thing: all of this is by design. Mark Hartley made his name in Australia, directing excellent documentaries about the B-side of cinema– Canon Films, Ozploitation, etc. He knows what he’s doing here. His shtick mimics perfectly a pacing now forgotten by the advent of quality standards. The feeling you have watching this re-enacts, to a T, the feeling you had watching sub-par straight-to-VHS films in the 90s. The problem for me is that I didn’t enjoy those movies back then, so I’m not going to enjoy them now. True confessions: I don’t like Poison Ivy, Whispers in the Dark, or Colour of the Night, and those at least had a titillating edge that kept the audience interested.