Today: June 21, 2024

Top Ten Oz-ploitation Movies

This week sees the re-release of Wake in Fright, a psychological thriller set in the Australian Outback. So snap open a can of amber nectar, throw another shrimp on the barbie, and join Ed Boff as he takes a look at Ten of the Best Oz-ploitation movies to come from that land down under…

Picnic At Hanging Rock
Probably the most critically lauded film on this list, this period piece was made by future Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show director Peter Weir. In 1900, a group of students from a girls’ boarding school inexplicably go missing at the titular landmark, affecting the whole community. The film is pervaded by an uneasy atmosphere coming from the ambiguity and open ending. Coupled with a David Lynch-esque sense of dialogue and characterisation (before Lynch had even made his first film), it makes for a very unsettling experience. The fact it is presented in the style of a true story, although it was only based on a novel, just adds to this. This was the sort of prestigious production that the Australian film authorities hoped would become the face of the country’s cinema. It was a very different breed however that most of the films here would come from…

Patrick
One name that turns up more than a few times in reference to Aussie Horror is Everett De Roche. Patrick is the first collaboration between him and director Richard Franklin, who’d later direct the underrated Psycho II. They’d work together again on Rear Window homage Road Games, and British killer ape movie Link.  Patrick tells of a nurse who comes to realise that the titular coma patient has telekinetic powers, and a possessive attitude. While in obvious debt to Carrie, Patrick is its own animal, with a different style and message, though like Brian De Palma‘s work there’s a clear debt to Alfred Hitchcock in the direction.  De Roche’s script is smart with an excellent sense of characterisation, and special mention should be made of Patrick himself played by Robert Thompson who manages to be a menacing presence in spite/because of the fact he spends virtually all film lying down staring at the ceiling.

Long Weekend
Another De Roche script, directed by Colin Eggleston, this is one of the smartest “nature gets revenge” movies to come in Jaws‘ wake.  A couple (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) having marriage problems go on a camping trip to try and salvage their relationship. They end up taking out a lot of their frustrations on the wildlife, not having a “take only pictures, leave only footprints” attitude. But then odd things happen, and their paranoia grows; is the environment actively fighting back against them?  The great thing about Long Weekend is that it’s ambiguous. Is there anything supernatural happening or is it their own neuroses getting the better of them? This did get a remake starring Jim Caviezel recently, but the original seventies version is an underrated gem, not just of Australian horror films, but film period.

Razorback
De Roche brings Jaws on land, in the form of a boar the size of a Ford Transit in a stylish piece from future Highlander director Russell Mulcahy. The film is set in a crumbling, post industrial chunk of Outback, with the only business being a grotty dog-food factory using kangaroo meat. It’s entirely believable that the monstrous hog could come from such a decaying, polluted environment.  At points it looks like the “bogan” (Australia’s answer to redneck) locals may be the bigger danger to the main characters, but the several tonne lump of pissed-off-bacon is never far away. Though some sections turn more than a bit too music video-ish (Mulcahy also directed Duran Duran‘s Rio), this is perhaps one of the best looking horror films of the ‘80s, and with a story to match.

Harlequin Aka Dark Forces
A political tale inspired by the life of the infamous Grigori Rasputin. David Hemmings stars as a noted senator with a terminally ill son. But then a mysterious, and seemingly mystical individual (Robert Powell) arrives to apparently heal him.  As a result he becomes part of the family; but what’s his real goal? This and other questions, including whether Powell’s abilities are real, make this fascinating viewing, and the parallel to the fall of the Tsars adds an extra layer. Hemmings would later direct Powell in another Aussie thriller, The Survivor – one of few adaptations of the work of British horror author James Herbert.

Undead
A quiet little fishing village is bombarded by meteorites bringing a plague of the living dead. The locals, including one who’s had a previous experience with the undead, must fight their way past their former friends and neighbours; but something else is at work in the town too.  More of an extended effects/demo reel for creators The Spierig Brothers, this zombie flick is a lot of fun, not least for some impressive effects on a tiny budget, and a strong vein of early Peter Jackson style comedy.  After this, the brothers also made the extremely impressive Ethan Hawke vampire movie Daybreakers, showing they can handle larger budgets just as well, without losing any ingenuity.

Wolf Creek (Main Image)
Not many realise that the original Saw was an Australian production; this later torture movie is unmistakably out of the Outback too. It’s a grim, dirty affair, with a lot of hard to watch scenes, so it’s not going to convert anyone who isn’t already a fan of this particular sub-genre. The glory days of Oz-sploitation petered out in the mid-80s, to the point that if one was to mention Australian films, most people would automatoically think of Crocodile Dundee.  The antagonist in this film, bushman Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), is almost a direct response to that, taking the Dundee archetype and making him the stuff of nightmares. In a particularly grimly humorous touch, the “that’s not a knife…” line is made something very sinister.

Lake Mungo
A different use of found footage, this is presented like a Storyville-style documentary. A teenage girl drowns on a day trip, but afterwards strange events haunt her family. The investigation leads them to discover dark secrets she kept, and the key to everything lies in something that happened on a trip to the titular dried lakebed. This is a fascinating ghost story, a meditation on matters of grief, and coming to terms with finding out our loved ones weren’t who we thought they were. It also has an incredible fright scene, showing how a great horror isn’t one with jump scares every four minutes, but a slow build up to one very well made shock…

The Loved Ones
In Sean Bryne‘s twisted tale of teen romance, young Brent (Twilight‘s Xavier Samuel) turns down Lola’s invitation to the prom. So Lola’s Daddy, who’ll do anything for his little Princess, kidnaps him so they can hold their own dance… although having to nail Brent’s feet down does limit the actual dancing. This exceedingly dark comedy goes into some utterly insane areas, including revelations about how many times these two have done this sort of thing before.  Though it still has a lot of the torture sub-genre, there’s a lot more going for it, not least some great performances by Robin McLeavy and John Brumpton as a most memorable pair of psychopaths.

Not Quite Hollywood
For another look at many of the films on this last, and a few more besides, this documentary about the Australian exploitation movie boom is a must-see. Not only does it interview many of the creators behind these films, it helps put many of the titles into perspective of the times.  As well as horror/thrillers, it also looks at the country’s output of saucy comedies and action fare, including Mad Max of course. Not just a fantastic sizzle reel of many of these titles, it helps one to appreciate a whole tradition of movie making one might not have even been aware of.  In fact, director Mark Hartley has such an obvious love and respect for the material – his latest film has been the recent remake of Patrick.

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