Razorback (1984)

Russell Mulcahy

The creator of Judge Judy wrote a book about a killer boar. It was adapted into a film in Australia in the 1980’s. Because the robotic boar never worked the film became about crazed pet food factory workers and a sign of Australia’s acceptance of its crazed underbelly.

 

Razorback is often unfairly described and derided as Jaws with a Boar.

Oh, if only it were that simple!

Razorback is barely a film about a giant boar. It is, at times, barely a film about anything. What it is though is an unwitting bridge between the 1971 bleak reality of Wake in Fright to the 1986 smash hit of Crocodile Dundee. Wake in Fright was an unflinching exploration of the nihilistic and drunken Australian psyche as experienced by a stranded school teacher in an outback town. It was a box-office failure and long lost in Australia as it was considered too unflinching in its depiction of the otherwise heavily romanticised Australian outback and inhabitants. Crocodile Dundee is essentially the same story as Wake in Fright but transformed into an extended tourism shoot and embrace of the foreign other with the drunken nihilism white-washed into a blokey fun.

Razorback forms part or all of the model which allowed Crocodile Dundee to make this transformation. Razorback backgrounds the drunkenness and hostility of the people it is populated by and the landscape they inhabit as it focuses upon the phantom dangers of a giant razorback boar. Crocodile Dundee would use the same tactic with the unreasonably ever-present danger of crocodiles.

Arguably this is a lot to lay on Razorback which some would argue is a film which is barely watchable. Directed by an untested Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet music video director it is full of set-pieces which veer dangerously close to proto steam-punk. The

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Greg Harrison was chosen over the lesser known Jeff Bridges.

producers passed on Jeff Bridges as the protagonist in favour of the lost to history and very underwhelming Gregory Harrison. The opening scene is a brutal exploitative reference to the Azaria Chamberlain dingo death in a story line which is never quite justified and then promptly abandoned. The eponymous boar, like Bruce the shark in Jaws, was apparently generally faulty and, so, is hardly seen. Instead the films prevalent and larger threat comes from the unpredictable and sexually violent local pet food factory workers.

Despite all this it is a cult classic and features prominently in the schlock aussie film documentary Not Quite Hollywood where Quentin Tarantino claims it is one of his favourite Australian films. Also, to the films merit, almost everyone in the crew (though not the cast) has gone on to have extensive careers in Australian and international film and television.

The most confusing aspect beyond the finished product are the films origins. Judge Judy creator, Peter Brennan, wrote two novels. One was Razorback and another was Sudden Death, a tennis thriller. He also co-authored another novel about the Kennedy brothers. When not writing schlock books he was an American television producer, writer, and journalist most well known for being the creator and executive producer of Judge Judy and its spin-offs as well as Current Affair and Good Day New York.

Filmed in Broken Hill and with many of the same crew from Mad Max 2 the film relies heavily on a hostile Australian outback and its weathered inhabitants for a threatening tone. It’s hard to know what was changed from the source material and assumedly American context of the book and to what degree, if any, the aspects of the township and its inhabitants were tacked on by the Australian film-makers. Unfortunately, and for whatever reason (scarcity, cult appeal, happenstance or price-fixing script-writing errors) copies of the Razorback novel are hard to find and often expensive (some around $150 at time of writing).

The director, Russell Mulcahy, had mainly worked as a music video director until Razorback. He would go on to direct Highlander, one of the Resident Evil films and a swathe of tv. His music video past is obvious in this, his debut. The film often looks like a music video with mist/fog and coloured backlit backgrounds filmed from low camera angles. There is also a hallucinatory dessert sequence that an IMDB review thought worthy enough to describe as ‘one of the most beautiful horror films not made by an Italian giallo master’.

In the absence of a working robotic boar and for story purposes too arbitrary or confusing to go into here the film focuses a lot of its time upon the ambivalently evil brothers Benny and Dicko, and their work in the town’s pet food factory. The factory is

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RAZORBACK, from left: David Argue, Chris Haywood as Dicko and Benny 1984, © Warner Brothers

ramshackle, malfunctioning, and mostly abandoned. There is some loose arrangement where local boar hunters supply carcasses to the factory but, judging by the surplus of body parts littered throughout the place, Benny and Dicko don’t seem to know how to process the mutilated offerings. Nonetheless the factory is a perfect place for director Mulcahy to fill with fog and film silhouettes garishly backlight in red and blue. Benny and Dicko are alcoholics who live in a cave, and are constantly changing into ever more outlandish fur coats and hats yet they appear to be the managers of the factory and the skeleton staff of heavy browed labourers. What’s more they take their work seriously. Throughout the film they abandon acts of rape, kidnapping, and murder so they can race back to the gore-ridden factory and hammer furiously at broken steam valves and jumpy conveyor belts.

Within the three films of Wake in Fright, Razorback and Crocodile Dundee a foreign other experiences the Australian outback and witness brutal hunting scenes. The infamous kangaroo hunting scene in Wake in Fright was shot with real kills and real drunken hunters and, not surprisingly, is extremely brutal in its violence and malice. In Razorback the acted drunken hunting is shot through backlit fog and becomes a music video and chance for the story, such as it is, to propel the protagonist towards his stand-in love interest. Crocodile Dundee sets up the same drunken kangaroo hunting scene for the same purpose of character. The drunken hunters are foiled by Mick Dundee at the behest of the shocked reporter. It is a chance for the suddenly honourable protagonist to distance himself from what were previously drunken brethren.

The transformation of the outback from the realism of Wake in Fright into the surrealism of a strange unexplained place in Razorback is also heavily reused in Crocodile Dundee as the hostile landscape takes on a level ambiguous spirituality. Wake in Fright focused upon the plight of an innocent school teacher trapped in the outback town and, so, underserved of the drunken excess he is subjected to. Razorback and Crocodile Dundee alter this dynamic by both using a New York reporter blundering into Australia with a missionary ideal and the hubris of reporting on the savagery of a foreign land. This sin of pride allows Razorback to justify the reporter’s hostile reception as it simultaneously draws upon Wake in Fright in its portrayal of the habitants as lost, drunken and manic within a landscape they exist to ruin.

Benny and Dicko are never really allowed to be evil however so much as psychotic cartoon characters. The rest of the town accepts them just as they accept the boar hunter whose son dies at the beginning of the film and is suspected (like Lindsay Chamberlain) of inventing the creature to cover up murder. It is difficult to know then if in this world all the inhabitants are twisted, or they are simply strangely accepting. Razorback never examines these or other questions long enough to provide any hint of underlying meaning. Similarly, the film refuses to encourage any sort of thematic interpretation in its frenetic pacing and continued priority of style above all else (including horror).

Crocodile Dundee becomes a much more gracious film as it choses to overlook the arrogance of the reporter and, instead, provides Mick Dundee as guide which allows the New Yorker to see and experience beauty in outback Australia and a degree of invented pathos to its isolated pub-going inhabitants.

Which isn’t to say, necessarily, that either Wake in Fright or Crocodile Dundee are morally right or wrong. Each have their problems and their ulterior motives. Wake in Fright wanted to be a frank and brutal look at Australia. Crocodile Dundee wanted to sell Australia to the world and show how foreign visitors could enjoy even its most isolated extremes. Razorback is great because of the fact it does exist in a blank middle-ground. It is a film which is aware of the faults of Australia and any attempt to portray it. But rather than worrying about this the film leans into being as brutal, fast and psychotic as it can in this portrayal. It merges the tropes of American music videos onto the Australian outback and one-pub towns. It doesn’t care about its perception or treatment of Australia, Australians or its overseas visitors and, as a result, and like many the Ozploitation classics is much more interesting and Australian than its mainstream contemporaries or forebears.

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Annabelle Creation (2017)

David Sandberg

Annabelle Creation is the latest film in what is now being retconned into The Conjuring universe (rather than franchise). Annabelle Creation is a prequel to Annabelle, which itself was a prequel to The Conjuring. As a tacked-on universe prequel I thought it would be safe to expect that Annabelle Creation would follow Rogue One and Kong: Skull Island and be serviceable and good while completing a task.

With little interest in rushing to Universe connectivity the movie revels in the early twentieth century American gothic. There is nothing to fear at the start of the movie but the very landscape itself provides a sense of foreboding. Director David F. Sandberg sets the scene for a conjuring against the back drop of a prairie land full of rusted farm machinery and technology such as lights and cars which are primitive and unreliable. Anthony LaPaglia constructs handmade dolls in an isolated and large farmhouse which he shares with his wife, played by Miranda Otto, and daughter. The family exists in this gothic bucolic bliss until the daughter dies in a road accident.

Oddly the trailer outlines the entire plot of the movie and arguably spoils its most compelling element which is the very slow reveal of not just the extent of the evil hidden within the house but the how it came to be there in the wake of daughter’s death. The movie proper starts when, twelve years later, a nun and her six orphan girl charges are invited to live in the house with the still grieving couple.

As soon as the nun and orphans arrive there is a feeling of a growing restrained threat and violence. As the children voice or attempt to ignore their fears the movie becomes about the idea of faith and the power of evil in the world and its ability to consume and destroy the innocent without caring about what should or deserves to happen. The setup of isolated farmhouse is naturally terrifying, the use of the doll and ghost child eminently chilling and the main pre-pubescent girl protagonists are especially vulnerable.

The film could have gone further and been as socially analogous as Get Out if it had chosen to twist the knife deeper and allude to the evil which existed, and exists, within the church. The demon and/or its existence could have been portrayed as analogous to predatorial priests preying upon the weak. Perhaps realising how close they are to this territory the filmmakers go to pains to ensure viewers that the demon is a demon is a demon and as such too much of the monster is shown in the third act of the film and rather than a terrifying wraith of the imagination some of the terror is dulled as the conjuring of inherit evil is rendered into form on too many occasions.

There are also either a lot of conceits or no limit to the demon’s power which is simultaneously frustrating and serves to heighten the threat and feeling of helpless ness with which the audience is shown the film. In service to universe building there is an Easter egg for the next Conjuring Universe movie, The Nun, and the epilogue of the film feels a little to complete as, like with Rogue One, it is forced to fit too well and, again, leave nothing to the imagination as it runs on seamlessly into Annabelle.

These small faults aside Annabelle Creation is still a film which is better than the sum of its parts. The script, acting and direction are well done and it maintains an enthralling pace and doing a lot with a relatively low kill count.

Don’t watch the trailer before seeing it. Destroy all porcelain dolls afterwards.

 

 

Tell it fast?

I’m currently writing a review of (Tom Cruise’s) The Mummy and a look at the state of Universals fledgling dark universe.

It’s been widely reported that The Mummy is a bad movie and it is on most fronts though it has the potential for a good (if not great) movie within it. One of the bigger problems I have with The Mummy is that the story is completely linear and the story time, as far as I could tell, is perhaps only 12-16 hours.

Linear story lines with short story times seem to be relatively common over the last year. Rogue One was a very straight ahead story and other than a flash back in it’s opening scene the events took place over the course of less than 12 hours. Wonder Woman uses a present day framing device to tell the story of the movie within flash back and also shows Diana’s upbringing through flashback but is otherwise also a very linear story with maybe 48 hours of total story time.

There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection between these films. The Mummy and Rogue One share the commonality of not being great films that probably should have been. Wonder Woman fares better though it’s third act suffers because of the usual poor CGI boss battle common to all DC films to date.

My theory is that all of these movies have sought to model themselves after Mad Max: Fury Road and it’s linear story with a scantmadmax 12 hours of story time. Mad Max worked because the action was so tactile, sensational and innovative. It was also a chase movie and didn’t ask for the audience to need  know or care to much about the titular or support characters.

By contrast the films above insist and rely upon empathy with the main characters, are trying to tell stories and to fit into bigger universes (Star Wars, DC, and Dark Universe respectively) and don’t provide enough or big enough action for such straightforward stories.

It’s a shame that these films were probably created under such heavy influence from Mad Max: Fury Road. I wonder what they could have been otherwise? I also wonder how many other films will try and fail with the same formula?

Perhaps the upcoming Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan will create a new trend. There is no running time released yet but the trailer hints at multiple character arcs and story lines and it seems safe to assume the movie will come close to the three hour mark. I don’t expect it will lead to superhero movies running to three hours but perhaps, hopefully, it will mean a return to less linear and longer style of story within big budget films and an end to trying to emulate a movie as unique as Mad Max.

 

Carmilla (1897)

Sheridan Le Fanu

Carmilla is said to be the first vampire novel. It pre-dates Bran Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years and Stoker is said to have taken influence from it. Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish journalist and uses the minimalist spare style you’d expect from his vocation. From what little I know of him Le Fanu was a workmanlike author intent on writing ghost stories for money. The novel is interesting in its use of using the young female character Lauraas the protaganist and the allusion to lesbian sexuality between her and the vampire Carmilla. It is also interesting that it’s style has not dated as badly as other novels of the time.

This is said to be the beginning of a different perception of the vampire myth. The start of the vampire being a representative fear of the aristocracy. Until Carmilla vampires had been represented as poor shambling zombie-like monsters.

Published in 1897 this is a surprisingly readable book. Leagues ahead of Frankenstein from earlier in the 19th century and arguably more interesting to read than Dracula. It’s not even the proto-type vampire novel you perhaps expect. Instead it an almost very matter of fact ghost story. It doesn’t establish the vampire rules, I think that comes with Dracula, and probably benefits from being read by the modern reader who automatically attributes these rules into a story which doesn’t state them but into which they easily fit.

Dead Snow (2009)

Tommy Wirkola

I re-watched this film at the start of 2017. It was around this time I started keeping track of what I was watching and reading. Mainly because I was bored and housebound. I had wondered if perhaps some sort of pattern might emerge in my media consumption. Or, if nothing else, I might start to understand what I kept coming back to and perhaps what I should concentrate on in the future.

As far as I can remember I’ve only seen this film twice. The first time was circa 2004 when I hired it from a video store in Preston. It had a little more novelty then. Though consuming foreign indie film was much different as well.

*edit: the films wasn’t released until 2009. I had moved back to near Preston and was hiring videos from a different but similar store.

Twelve years (actually eight) later this sort of idea of the double hinged camp horror film has been fairly well mined and yet this film still holds up well. The zombies look great, it’s all shot perfectly and the acting is fine. The plot is bare and doesn’t try to do anything other than play as expected. Group of friends travel to remote location, a ghost story signposts coming horror, said ghost(s) materialise and kill and terrorise until what is left of the group can turn on and destroy the ghosts.

For the budget this is a good film and I respect how well they executed a flimsy concept. Still I don’t think I’ll watch this a third time. Though still I’m curious about the sequel even as everyone campily combines Nazis into their speculative/sci-fi/horror stories. It’s true there’s nothing more evil then a Nazi. It’s depressing though seeing true evil so easily defeated by sexed up bumbling Norwegian teens. Even Bed knobs and Broomsticks treated the concept more seriously.