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Oz Factor: Strange Australia on the Cusp of the 80s

  After Star Wars was the colossal hit it was, the genres of science fiction and horror seemed to be revitalised as new talents made their mark in them in Hollywood, creating a mini-Golden Age from about 1977 to 1982 or '83. Directors like John Carpenter, John Landis, Joe Dante and many more found themselves much in demand, and those who were around at the time look back on that period of around five years when tributes were paid to the cult classics of the past by refashioning what had been learnt from them into new, shiny, effects-filled entertainments, the culmination of the seventies fixation on the outlandish as a perfectly acceptable diversion. But that was the United States, what were other nation's film industries getting on with at the time? Take Australia, for instance, a country whose cinema had enjoyed a New Wave in the seventies which translated onto a very individual style of exploitation movie.

It was not all Picnic at Hanging Rock or My Brilliant Career, though prestige pictures such as those were certainly doing no harm, for a fertile line of so-called Ozploitation movies were being shot and released to increasing international acclaim. Hanging Rock's Peter Weir had even had a go at his own brand with 1974's The Cars That Ate Paris, and 1977's The Last Wave even managed an apocalypse on a meagre budget - that making the best of slender means to fashion great heights of ingenuity in varieties of lucrative and lurid excitements. Many of them took advantage of the landscape of the continent to not merely serve as a backdrop to the action, but actively inform how the stories would go, and that sense of humanity in an uneasy alliance with their environment was uppermost in one example that was a fair hit overseas, but proved largely ignored in its native land: Long Weekend.

This was one of the first film scripts by the idiosyncratic Everett De Roche to make it to the big screen; Patrick, his psychic coma victim horror was made later, but Colin Eggleston finished this in 1977, it simply took about two years for it to be released in Oz. Foreign territories recognised its quality and snapped it up, where it made money, and became a staple on television for almost twenty years after, especially in Britain where a couple of generations of kids could recall being creeped out by it on its seven (!) showings from 1984-95. Its strength was perhaps in what Australians did not necessarily wish to hear: Mother Nature wants to kill you, which was what foreigners expected of the land with all its dangerous, even deadly, flora and fauna that indicated humans were not especially welcome. This was undoubtedly the case with Long Weekend where the central couple were an affront to the natural world.

There was nothing they could do, once they had travelled to an isolated beach in the Outback, they were not going to be allowed to get away with anything. John Hargreaves and Briony Behets played the bickering couple, who spent their stay as a destructive presence which was revisited upon them a hundredfold by the plants and animals they encountered. There are hints they are being punished for their social mores - the wife has recently had an abortion, for instance, so a conservative lot the life we share the planet with - but increasingly it becomes clear the environment really doesn't like us, in fact it absolutely detests us. With the couple as the sole representatives of the viewer, it didn't matter that we didn't agree with Hargreaves shooting a dugong in the sea or Behets breaking an eagle's egg, we were all guilty in an Original Sin way of being who we were, and nothing was going to alter that. It was a horror movie with a genuine disquiet about it.

Landscape was also vital to Mad Max, the 1979 effort that truly announced Australian exploitation flicks were here and well worth watching. Taking its cue from an earlier work, the biker story Stone that featured some crazy stunts, director George Miller went all out on his tiny budget to deliver the goods as far as vehicle spectacle went, making a cross between the apocalypse of the Harlan Ellison adaptation from 1975 A Boy and His Dog and your average demolition derby. That feeling of watching actual impacts between trucks, cars and bikes was what brought the punters into the cinema, and it was the first from its nation to make a major profit at the American box office, where it played drive-ins and grindhouses and made an international name of its star, Max Rockatansky himself Mel Gibson. Not only that, but it spawned many imitators, including the most influential of all, its sequel Mad Max 2 (known as The Road Warrior in the United States).

The plot was simplicity itself, so much so that even by '79 this was dipping into cliché, the main one being the action movie where what happens to the hero's woman informs his thirst for revenge, though that did not occur until well past the halfway point of the running time. Before that, Miller indulged in what would now be termed world-building, conjuring a society that was degenerating into lawlessness so convincing that many foreigners did not notice the caption at the beginning saying this was set a few years in the future and truly believed it was an accurate depiction of the more out of the way regions of Australia. The director would take this yet further in the following instalments, but there was a gritty authenticity to the initial entry where you could well believe at the time that the modern world was just a whisker away from handing over to the violent gangs: imagine the urban hells of New York exploitation movies transposed to the Outback.

Or Australia's country roads, at any rate, though famously the version seen in North America was different to that of back home as AIP, the studio that had picked it up, thought the accents would be offputting and dubbed it with broad American ones instead, incidentally ruining the performance of the lead villain Toecutter, Hugh Keays-Byrne, who used a variety of accents to make his character as offbeat as possible. Stick with the original and you'd get the full flavour, essential to understanding the themes of heroism in a world that was rejecting that concept precisely at the stage when it needed it most, and when Max did turn to his most heroic, it had curdled him into a violent and bloodthirsty man whose heart had quickly grown cold. His boss tells him he will never give up the life of a police officer, and we could perceive over the course of the rest of the series that he never really did, simply doing so in an unconventional manner as befitting the science fiction milieu.

One man who did as much as anyone to promote Australia's genre movies was Antony I. Ginnane, and after beginning his career in the sexploitation side of the growing industry he branched out into horrors, thrillers and science fiction, sometimes all three at once as was the case with his 1979 vampire revisionism Thirst (not to be confused with the Park Chan-wook South Korean horror of twenty years later). This posited that vampires lived among us, nothing original there, but that they had developed a society akin to space aliens feeding on the puny humans to sustain them, not by creeping into their bedrooms at night for a suck on the jugular, but by building specialised blood farms where the humans can mill about on some exclusive grounds like cows, then be harvested for the red stuff at regular intervals all the better to guarantee a supply, which in a neat touch is delivered in milk cartons.

Chantal Contouri was the leading lady, also the star of Ginnane's previous horror Snapshot (a collaboration with De Roche, as you can see this was a small world), and while she continued to work steadily for the next few decades, she never achieved the stardom he evidently would have wanted for her. Here she proved herself capable enough of carrying a movie as the descendent of Countess Bathory who the Hyma Corporation of vampires wish to join with them, no matter that she has no experience of being a bloodsucker, it's simply part of her long ago history, though that is not going to stop them trying to convert her. Or are they rather bringing out her latent vampirism that has lain dormant all her life? Whichever, she is extremely reluctant to ally herself with them, and after they kidnap her she does her darnedest to get away, yet as if in a nightmare keeps returning to their swanky, clinical establishment.

Thirst was as much for the phobic about hospitals as it was the squeamish about blood, as many sequences took place in gleaming white surroundings, where you could practically smell the antiseptic mixed with a certain coppery aroma in the air. Again, this was not a big budget enterprise, but Aussie ingenuity was enough to make it come across as a slick, glossy effort, helped by two imported stars to appeal to international markets: Henry Silva, that reliable baddie of many a genre flick, and David Hemmings, who was so impressed with what he experienced here that he went on to make it his business to create original films out of Australia, including further Ginnane collaborations. It was true to observe Thirst, under TV director Rod Hardy, was more in love with crafting its off kilter, inventive depictions of vampire lore newly minted for this (it owed something to The Satanic Rites of Dracula) than it was with its storytelling, but it was different.

More American stars were imported for director Richard Franklin's Road Games, a conscious attempt to fashion a Rear Window on wheels, since he was a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, had worked for the master of suspense, and was now emulating his style. He would go on to further hone that technique with sequel Psycho II, though the fact that few mention Franklin in the same breath as Hitchcock should give you some indication of how well he is remembered. Nevertheless, he had evidently learnt quite a bit about generating excitement mixed with quirky touches and a wry, black sense of humour, so all that fed into this yarn which once again used the vast expanses of the Australian bush to set its thrills in, as curiously laidback as they were. Those stars? They wanted Sean Connery, but they got Stacy Keach, and for his leading lady they asked Jamie Lee Curtis, more for her association to Hitch as Janet Leigh's daughter, you imagine.

Not for her newly and reluctantly acquired status as the queen of the slasher movie, for though Road Games was termed a horror in many places, and certainly contained disturbing implications the characters occasionally spoke out loud, it was clear Franklin and his screenwriter Everett De Roche (something of an unsung hero in Ozploitation, as you can see) were after less shock material and more edge of the seat delivery. It was the most expensive film from this county to that date, though this still didn't mean a massive amount in Hollywood terms, but it looked assured and had a clever screenplay that made the most of the landscape and the possibilities that the few people you might meet out there may not be friendly. Keach played a trucker who is taking a trailer full of meat to the West, where there is a shortage thanks to a strike, and finds himself first intrigued by the reports of a serial killer at large, then framed for the crimes by the barely glimpsed villain.

Actually, that evildoer was notable for a non-character reason, he was played by Grant Page, the legendary stuntman and stunt arranger securing a rare role in a movie - he performed the action duties on Mad Max as well, and gained a reputation as one of the most fearless in his field, always delivering the goods when it came to driving at high speeds and indeed crashing at high speeds. Page didn't have any lines, but he carried himself with a confidence that made him an intimidating presence for Keach and his hitchhiker Curtis (who believes him when he says he is being set up) to battle against. There may have been grumbling that those two were taking jobs from Australians, but there were few Aussies of equivalent star calibre in 1981 who would have been willing to appear in this, and with the offbeat dialogue they were a nice match for the lightly eccentric yet somehow sinister personality Franklin concocted for his thriller.

The same year, this issue was exacerbated by casting three non-Aussies and hiring a British director for The Survivor, based on a novel by the equally British James Herbert. That director was David Hemmings who as mentioned was much taken by the film industry Down Under, and he jumped at the chance to follow up his acting role in Ginnane's Harlequin to helm this, not that he was under any illusions that he was about to create a masterpiece, but good enough was his acceptable limit. As it transpired, this was not one of the biggest hits of any of those involved, but the fact that it was the first Herbert adaptation, and was a hundred miles better than Deadly Eyes, the Canadian version of his breakthrough The Rats, has brought it a loyal cult audience, even if certain elements were altered in transition from page to screen, but then again, anyone who has appreciated a book and goes on to watch its movie will know to expect that.

Hemmings staged an arresting opening as we saw a plane crash, and not any old plane crash, but a large passenger jet which suffers a catastrophe and bulldozes its way along the ground, through trees and houses, until coming to rest in a field whereupon it bursts into a fireball, killing everyone onboard. Well, not quite everyone, for as the emergency crews try to get the accident under control, a lone figure stumbled out of the flames: the pilot, played by Robert Powell, the first of those Brit stars in the billing. The second was Jenny Agutter, who played a psychic who keeps finding her waking hours interrupted by the screams of the dead passengers which run through her mind, making it a necessity she is able to allow them to reach their peace. The third import was Joseph Cotten, in his final role as a priest who is reluctant to allow his church and beliefs be used for non-religious supernatural means.

After that wham-bang beginning it was tempting to say Hemmings took his foot off the pedal somewhat, but he did bring out a dreamlike atmosphere in the material which only made sense when you discovered what was happening, and more pertinently, how Powell's Captain managed to survive the conflagration. Not that it was especially difficult to work out, so the director did his best to conceal it by layering this with a woozy, unfocused tone that proved a turn off for many in the audience, particularly when it seemed to only occasionally transform into the nightmare as expected. Herbert's source had made the death scenes as various characters were bumped off his usual setpieces, but here they were more muted, dialling back on the possibilities for gore so that, if not more tasteful, it elicited a tone of the uncanny. The following year, Ginnane would produce one of his most notorious films, Turkey Shoot, which supplied the trashy and gruesome in a way The Survivor did not, but it's accurate to conclude almost every genre work from this period on Australian film was worth a look, the essential nature of the land showing through in every frame, almost unconsciously becoming, in their own way, unique.

[Severin's Blu-ray of The Survivor has as many special features as you could ever want, with a fully restored, full length version of the film accompanied by a audio commentary, interview clips, James Herbert featurettes, trailers and so on. It's possible to appreciate the film far better now: Herbert didn't like it originally, but he may have liked this.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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