Solidly made genre item looks at the relationships of two couples following kids' disappearance.

What if a couple of kids from next door disappeared only to reappear on a “Blair Witch”-like snuff video a couple of days later? That’s the pulpy premise at the basis of Magyar helmer Robert Pejo’s otherwise surprisingly earnest psychological thriller, “The Camera Murderer.” Adapted from Austrian novelist Thomas Glavinic’s bestseller, this atmospheric and solidly made genre item looks at the disintegrating relationships of two couples following the kids’ disappearance on the Austro-Hungarian border. Pic should scare up decent B.O. numbers in niche release in Hungary and German-speaking Europe, while remake rights and minor cult potential should spike interest elsewhere.

“One should absolutely read it — and never turn it into a movie,” an Austrian literary critic wrote in his review of Glavinic’s psychological crime novel. But though the book’s first-person narration by the title character has been removed, the more classical dramatic structure used in its place is solid. Agnes Pluch, Guenter Pscheider and helmer Pejo, who co-wrote the screenplay, make each of the four protags equally interesting — a rarity these days — while never shortchanging the mystery and thriller elements that drive the quick erosion of the characters’ rapports.

High-strung Eva (Ursina Lardi) and sardonic Heinrich (Andreas Lust) are a couple from Vienna visiting their old friend Thomas (Merab Ninidze) over the Easter weekend at his isolated lake house on the border.

Though Thomas’ new Hungarian girlfriend, Sonja (Dorka Gryllus), is worried about making a good first impression, everyone’s on their best behavior. But an early sequence, with shades of “Don’t Look Now,” already suggests something is not quite right as the two couples visit an abandoned observation tower by the lake on a windy afternoon.

Things kick into high gear when their boorish Hungarian neighbor, Imre (Oszkar Nyari), tells Sonja that his sister’s three young sons have been missing for 24 hours, and Heinrich confesses he might have seen them in a snuff video online that could have been shot near the tower the foursome visited earlier.

Moving the characters like chess pieces so they have just enough material to suspect each other but not quite enough proof to either go to the police or decide to get the hell out of there, ace helmer Pejo (“Dallas Pashamende”) keeps things going at a rapid pace, with each discovery by one of the characters directly impacting the happy-Easter facade all try to keep up.

Thesping is strong across the board, and the actors play even the occasionally over-the-top moments straight. By neutering some of the novel’s critique of the bloodlust and sensationalist tendencies of the media, who also get their hands on the video, the pic feels even more claustrophobic while also underlining the characters’ physical isolation.

Location work and set design for the villa are key in establishing the film’s generally overcast mood, as is d.p. Gergely Poharnok’s composed widescreen lensing.

Like “Don’t Look Now,” the film does reveal who the culprit is in the end but would work just as well without this information.

The Camera Murderer

Austria

Production

A ThimFilm release of a Lotus Films, Andreas Hruza AV Medienbuero production, in association with Mythberg Films, Cobra Films. (International sales: Lotus Films, Vienna.) Produced by Erich Lackner, Andreas Hruza. Co-producers, Jozsef Berger, Susann Ruedlinger. Directed by Robert Pejo. Screenplay, Agnes Pluch, Guenter Pscheider, Robert Pejo, based on the novel by Thomas Glavinic.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Gergely Poharnok; editor, Loredana Cristelli; music, Peter Von Siebenthal, Daniel Jakob, Oli Kuster, David Yengibarjan; production designer, Csaba Stork; costume designer, Krisztina Ignjatovic; sound (Dolby Digital), Joe Knauer; assistant director, Julia Nagy; casting, Susan Mueller, Rita Waszilovics, Oszkar Nyari, Julia Sara. Reviewed at Hungarian Film Week, Feb. 8, 2010. (In Berlin Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Dorka Gryllus, Merab Ninidze, Andreas Lust, Ursina Lardi, Oszkar Nyari, Lajos Csiszer, Greta Hajdu. (German, Hungarian dialogue)

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