Friday, July 28, 2017

Worth Mentioning - Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Down Under

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


Three films worth of horror and thrills from Australia.


ROAD GAMES (1981)

"Pig in a poke, you better start shakin'
Today's pig is tomorrow's bacon."

There's a butchers strike going on in Australia, but maniac on the road has been doing some butchering of his own, picking up hitch-hikers and leaving them in pieces. Pat Quid (Stacy Keach), an American living in Australia and working as a truck driver, has his own suspect for who the killer may be - the driver of a green van that travels the same Outback roads as he does.

Making his way through the countryside, Quid doesn't have much to do to pass the time other than talk to his dingo - or is he a dog? - Boswell, make some noise with his harmonica, and play road games. Games like watching the occupants of other vehicles, coming up with names for them, and imagining what their lives are like. The driver of the green van first comes to Quid's attention when the sleepy trucker pulls into a city with hopes of getting a room at a hotel, only to see the green van guy check into the last vacant room with a hitch-hiker. That's annoying, but when Quid catches the guy anxiously watching the trash pick-up at 4:30 the next morning, it really gets his gears turning.


While doing his job, hauling a trailer full of pig carcasses, Quid repeatedly sees the green van and gets more and more suspicious of its driver. Why is the guy digging a hole out in a desert? Is he the one who injured Boswell during a stop? What's he doing, creepily parked by the side of the road not far from where Quid has stopped for the night?

Quid deals with a lot of boredom while working, and director Richard Franklin, who was working from a story he crafted with Everett De Roche, really digs into the idea that Quid could simply be letting his imagination run away with him due to having nothing else to do and being sleep deprived. Although Road Games has plenty of moments of action, intrigue, suspense, and even some laughs (my favorite example of the comedic touch being a scene in which Quid attempts to ride a motorcycle), it's also not afraid to take some time letting this story play out, and its more restrained pace can come off as being slightly slow at points.


Along the way, another American gets involved with Quid's preoccupation with the green van; the hitch-hiking runaway daughter of a diplomat, Pamela Rushworth, who is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, the queen of the horror genre at the time. Together, Quid and Pamela - who Quid refers to as Hitch - ponder whether or not the green van guy is a killer, and there's always the lingering question of whether or not Quid is just being paranoid.

Curtis's character being called Hitch isn't just because she's a hitch-hiker; Franklin was a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, had been ever since he saw Psycho at the age of 12. He was even able to meet Hitchcock in person and became friends with his idol. Road Games was Franklin's attempt at making a Hitchcockian road picture, Rear Window on wheels. He does quite well at creating thrills and suspense as Quid and the driver of the van play their game of cat and mouse, and proved so adept at being an Australian Hitchcock that he would go on to be hired to direct a sequel to Hitchcock's classic film Psycho. Franklin's Psycho II was released in 1983, twenty-three years after the first movie.


I highly recommend checking out Road Games, and if the pace doesn't put you off you'll find that it is a very well-crafted thriller with an interesting protagonist at its core. I first caught this movie on cable sometime in the '90s, and it has stuck with me ever since.

But Road Games doesn't exactly need my endorsement; Quentin Tarantino has listed it among his favorite films.



HOUNDS OF LOVE (2016)

When writer/director Ben Young was a kid growing up in Australia, his parents put a fear in him with stories of a real life serial killer couple that had been caught in Perth. Young tapped into that childhood fear while crafting his feature directorial debut Hounds of Love, resulting in a stunningly impressive first-time feature.

Set in December of 1987, the story centers on Ashleigh Cummings as rebellious teenager Vicki Maloney, whose decision to sneak out in the night to go to a party leads her into the clutches of John White (Stephen Curry) and his wife Evelyn (Emma Booth). Like others before her, Vicki is chained to a bed in the White home, where the couple intends to rape and beat her for days before killing her and burying her in a nearby forest.

I usually have an aversion to films directly based on true crimes, as they often feel like crass cash-ins that gave no consideration to the victims or their families. If Hounds was a cinematic telling of what went on with that real serial killer couple in 1980s Perth, it's likely I would have avoided it. But while the film does contain many facts lifted from that case, Young gets around the more distasteful aspects of bringing the deeds of actual serial killers to the screen by placing those facts inside a story that is fictional. John and Evelyn White are not the real killers that terrorized Perth, they are characters that Young and his actors built from the ground up.

Young and cinematographer Michael McDermott also brought this scenario to the screen in such a way that it never feels exploitative. The film never revels in the brutality that Vicki endures. It is made very clear just what sort of awful things are going on inside the White residence, but Young lets us fill in the blanks on our own. We'll hear screams coming from a darkened room, but we don't see the rape or the beatings. We know there are violent acts going on within a scene, but we are spared the sight of the impact... Unless that impact provides some kind of cathartic pay-off. The film is effectively disturbing and devastating without being off-putting. A film with this subject matter could be truly disgusting, but that's not the direction Young went with it.


Nor did he make his killers paper thin scumbags, as can often be the case. Every one of his lead characters comes across as a real human being with depth. John is a scumbag to be sure, a monster, but his relationship with Evelyn is a complicated one - he's a master manipulator who presents himself as being a good, caring guy aside from his homicidal urges and violent temper. He's had Evelyn wrapped around his finger since she was a teenager herself, he is in complete control of her, but his control doesn't extend to other people in his life. Vicki isn't a squeaky clean innocent, she's a pot-smoking party girl who cheats at school, sneaks out of home, and has a very rocky relationship with her mother. She's a pain at first, but as we follow her through this nightmarish ordeal we quickly come to care for her and root for her, and we see who she is beneath the rebel exterior.

And then there's the character I found to be the most interesting person in the film, Evelyn. She is a mother who has lost custody of the kids she had with a man other than John. The pain of that loss is obviously weighing on her at all times, even when she's gladly helping John abduct and brutalize his victims. She doesn't mind the rape and murder, but she does mind when John shows the captive girls too much attention. She gets jealous. This is a troubled, tormented woman who was fascinating to watch, and Booth brought her to life with an incredible performance. The acting in this film was great across the board, but Booth really stood out for me.


Hounds of Love is a fantastic achievement for Young, the sort of debut that leaves you looking forward to seeing what else the filmmaker might have in store for you. From the writing and directing to the acting and cinematography, this film blew away my expectations and impressed me on every level. It's intense, it's heartbreaking, it's awe-inspiring.

The Hounds of Love review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com



THE MARSUPIALS: THE HOWLING III (1987)

With a werewolf queen who was ten millenia old and could zap bolts of supernatural energy from her fingertips, Howling II already took the Howling franchise off the deep end, but if you thought that one was absurd you might want to buckle yourself into your seat before you attempt to watch returning director Philippe Mora's The Marsupials: The Howling III. This film is the definition of bonkers, and while Mora was working from a screenplay written by others on Howling II, this time it all rests on his shoulders: although the credits say the film is based on the third Howling novel by author Gary Brandner, it actually has nothing to do with the story of the book. This film is an original idea concocted by Mora, who also wrote the screenplay, and the only connection it has to any other Howling story is the fact that it's about werewolves.


The oddball story Mora crafted is set in his home country of Australia and imagines that there is a small village somewhere in the Outback that is called Flow and is inhabited by werewolves (the town is called Flow because that's "Wolf" backwards). The wolf-people don't conduct themselves in a very pleasant manner, and one Flow resident - a young woman named Jerboa (Imogen Annesley) - attempts to escape her abusive home life by running away to Sydney.

 

Jerboa isn't in Sydney long before other werewolves, a trio of women disguised as nuns, catch up with her and drag her back to Flow, but she's there long enough to meet and fall in love with Donny Martin (Leigh Biolos), who works in the entertainment industry and gets her involved with the making of a horror film called Shape Shifters Part 8. During their courtship, Donny provides Jerboa with her first ever movie-going experience; they see a horror flick titled It Came from Uranus, a film that just happens to be about werewolves. While watching the movie, Jerboa makes some odd comments about the werewolves: "They don't look like that", their transformations "don't happen like that."

When they make love, Donny notices some unusual things about Jerboa, like the fact that she has a furry tummy and a pouch like a marsupial, but that doesn't make him any less attractive to him. We'll soon come to find out that Jerboa is pregnant with Donny's child, and that weird little wolfen creature is born within a matter of days, taking shelter in its mother's pouch as soon as it exits the womb.


Werewolves aren't just people cursed with lycanthropy in this film, they are a marsupial species that has evolved over time. Anthropologist Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto), who specializes in unexplained phenomenon, has long suspected that these creatures exist in the Outback, as he has a piece of footage in his possession that his grandfather shot before disappearing in 1905 - footage of a werewolf that was killed by an Aboriginal tribe in Cape York. Beckmeyer has even tried to warn the President of the United States that there are werewolves out there in the world.


In addition to Australia, Beckmeyer also believes there are werewolves in Siberia, and when the National Intelligence Agency is receiving reports about villagers in Sibera being killed by werewolves, it seems to prove Beckmeyer's theory correct. Beckmeyer gets undeniable proof that there are Siberian werewolves when he witnesses ballerina Olga Gorki (Dasha Blahova), who has defected from Russia, transform into a werewolf while performing on stage.


With the existence of werewolves becoming obvious and the body count rising, a military strike force is sent into the Outback to locate Flow. Beckmeyer and Donny also head out into the countryside, seeking to find the town of werewolves. As the soldiers and werewolves wage war with each other, Beckmeyer and Donny find themselves siding with the marsupials rather than their fellow humans - understandable, since Donny is in love with one of them and now the father of a human-marsupial hybrid, and Beckmeyer also finds himself falling for Olga.


As it turns out, these werewolves evolved from the Tasmanian wolf, the thylacine, an Australian marsupial creature that was hunted to extinction, the last known thylacine having died in 1936. There have been no confirmed sightings of the creature since then - and Mora explains that this is because they became werewolves. Drawing inspiration from the tragic loss of a species does add some weight to The Howling III, but it doesn't change the fact that it is one oddball film.


The Marsupials has a very strange tone, leaning toward the humorous and ridiculous (Dame Edna even shows up), mixing that with some effective emotional elements, and attempting to deliver horror through the presence of the most ridiculous-looking werewolves ever committed to film. These things are astoundingly silly. The movie mocks bad werewolf effects through the clips we see of It Came from Uranus, then proceeds to show us werewolf effects that are nearly as bad.


It's tough to accurately describe The Marsupials: The Howling III - it's a very unique, mind-boggling film, one that you have to see just to prove to yourself that such a movie actually exists. That a filmmaker could assemble all these off-the-wall elements and not just get enough support and money to bring them to the screen (or maybe not enough money, considering the werewolf effects), but also to get a franchise title slapped onto it despite having no connection to the earlier entries in the franchise. Not even the one Mora directed before.

Like Howling II, part 3 is not what I would call a good movie. It's not a film I would just randomly show someone else. But it is a movie that I have seen several times, and will continue to watch every now and then while wondering "How the hell did this happen?"

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