Forgotten Masterpieces

Posted on 01/06/2011

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The Howling III - The Marsupials. Now peaking on imDb at a whopping 2.7 stars.

ozploitation: n. (portmanteau) – low budget horror, comedy and action films made in Australia following the introduction of the R rating in 1971.

Of course, we have an industry.

We have for over 40 years. An industry littered with films about pretty girls disappearing into rocks and men racing each other to the pyramids and boys with autism and cops in caravans with tinnitus and Melbournians shooting each other in the face. We make artistically meritorious, culturally significant films about our landscape and our drinking habits and our lust for violence and women. Films shot with that dull, blue or green wash or that burning, harsh shade of orangy-yellow. Where the critics go “My God, look at that shot, give him an AFI award” while the public go off and watches The Hangover 2.

We get it right, absolutely. I’ve just paraphrased a number of films I rather admire, and indeed some that we should be proud to call Australian. But let’s face it: we tend to make wanky, emotionally-wrought films about love and death and beer, or we make daggy comedies about lovable families fighting the “man” or lovable fat guys working in the portable toilet business. ¹

Mad Max (1979)

But in 1971, something remarkable happened. Something that would form the insane catalyst for a spate of weird, wonderful, genuinely inventive and strange films made in this great country of ours. Something that would allow us not only to have an industry, but to make it as adventurous, wild and exuberant as our scriptwriters and directors from the early 70s onwards damn well pleased.

In 1971, the R rating was introduced. One little letter in a diamond in the bottom left hand corner of your poster, meaning only one thing for you, the aspiring young director with a ten-grand or so in your back-pocket and a script about a killer pig: it was now on for young and old, and you could get in on it!

Ozploitation – a period lasting from the early 70s through to the very early 90s – represents an incredibly important, energetic and fun period in Australian film making. A period that saw films such as Wake In Fright, Mad Max, the Barry McKenzie series and  that forgotten Nicole Kidman masterpiece BMX Bandits made, distributed, and making more money for the Australian film industry than had ever been seen. Due in part to the inexorable success and popularity of the Drive-In circuit (thank God this country has a car fetish), Ozploitation represents a time when films were quite shamelessly made to be distributed overseas, when the films we made didn’t necessarily have to reflect on our history or our idiosyncrasies, when you could shoot a car chase without a permit and when you could make sexploitation flicks and monster flicks and action flicks with reckless abandon.

Not Quite Hollywood, an amazing documentary.

I know this only because of a wonderful Australian documentary called Not Quite Hollywood, a 98 minute long odyssey through the back-catalog of Australian genre and exploitation pictures with comments coming left, right and center from Quentin Tarantino (a huge fan of this period of Australian film-making), directors such as Russell Mulcahy, John Lamond, Brian Trenchard-Smith, Phillipe Mora and actors like Dennis Hopper and Jamie Lee-Curtis.

For someone who had hoped and prayed – like I did once once upon a time – that Peter Weir style pictures like Picnic at Hanging Rock were not the only kinds of films we plopped out in this country, this documentary came as such a refreshing, relieving surprise to me. Beyond being just a genuinely entertaining film that is never dull for even a split second, Not Quite Hollywood is a remarkably liberating film in many ways.

It forms the hard proof that once upon a time this country’s film industry didn’t take itself anywhere near as seriously as it does now, was fully aware that what they were making was by no means the most culturally or artistically significant films one could make, was milking the government and tax payer’s money for all that it was worth to make as many films as it could, and having an absolute ball in the process.

It stands, essentially, as a time in film-making that was intrinsically Australian: it was loud, it could be daggy and stupid, it was laid back and it was fun.

Razorback (1984)

Not Quite Hollywood also introduced me to a picture that I believe is a pretty sweet piece of film-making, about a giant killer pig barreling through the outback on a killing spree. Razorback is directed by Russell Mulcahy, whose other credits include Highlander with Sean “Dense Scottish Accent” Connery and Resident Evil: Extinction (which is apparently not bad by comparison to the other ones). The pretty much wafer-thin screenplay is written by Everette De Roche, probably the most prominent screen-writer of the Ozploitation era alongside David Williamson, in which a giant killer-razorback picks off first a child prompting a revenge sub-plot, then an animal rights activist, at which point her husband emerges to solve the mystery of what has killed her.

What Mulcahy has made here is essentially a 95 minute long music video, and given his experience in the realms of music videos (with Elton John and Duran Duran being his more prominent clients) it’s no surprise that Razorback looks absolutely amazing. I mean, the film’s  two AFI Awards for the editing and Dean Semler’s stunning cinematography. What is most amazing about the film is how it has managed to stand the test of time and grow in to a much more modern sensibility.

In hiring a music video director, the company responsible for Razorback predicted a now very modern trend.

By using a director with such a sense of aesthetic, your horror film can come out looking glossy, impressive and indeed oppressive, even if your script is about as solid as a house of cards. Razorback’s problem is undoubtedly style over substance, but damn if there isn’t a hell of a lot of style here!

The opening shot of Razorback

But style isn’t the point: exuberance is. What better example is there of a period defined by crazy film-making than a horror film about a killer pig, directed by the guy who made the video clip to Hungry Like The Wolf? I consider that fairly audacious, and it is those kind of film-making balls that are now nauseatingly absent in Australian cinema now. Granted, movies like Wolf Creek and Rogue(two examples of a modern sensibility in Ozploitation) owe more than a portion of their success to the film making tradition of the 70s and 80s, but there’s a distinct lack of fun in Australian cinema now.

The pig, in all it's maladroit beauty.

So, my fellow viewer, if in the coming work you find yourself watching Animal Kingdom or Snowtown (both great films) and wanting to kind of lynch yourself in your depressive state, I implore you to stop.

Stop, and run down to ACMI, and for $19.95, buy yourself a copy of Razorback. Or Turkey Shoot 2000. Or The Howling III.

And as you watch these films, admire their visuals and laugh with the films at the absurdity of it’s premises, the occasional short-mindedness of their scripts and the charm of the effort, take stock – and a deep sigh of relief – and remember this: once upon a time, we made kick-arse Exploitation flicks.

And if we want to find a time when fun and insanity was what defined the Australian film industry, all we have to do is look to the Ozploitation Renaissance of the 70s and 80s.

Here’s some clips to brighten your day:

Razorback Trailer

Not Quite Hollywood Trailer

FOOTNOTE/S:

1. I’m having a dig here, guys.

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Posted in: Semester 1