15 OZPLOITATION films (Australian Cinema in the 70’s)

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for Cinetalk.net

Cinema was around in Australia almost since its beginning with various phases leading to a near extinction by the 1960’s. But under new government rules and funding, at the beginning of the 1970’s (and following the introduction of the R Rating in 1971), the ‘Australian New wave’ was born with its little cousin the Ozploitation cinema (Shockers, horrors, comedies and even action flicks) that had to make the best of their low budget limitation.

Some of these films are great, some have flaws, some age well, some don’t. But there is a peculiar oddity about them as they are often between exploitation and Art films with great settings (the Outback)and experimental atmospheres (notably the music) with minimal story line establishing a disturbing ambiance. Stories filled with characters facing pessimistic situations in places where they do not belong, creating fantastic looking and sounding pieces of escalating antagonism out of what would otherwise be ordinary.

It was a period of go-between for talented mavericks (sometimes near amateurs in the process of becoming pros) leading to the 1980’s and successful international careers. It shaped a new generation of filmmakers, among them the better known Peter weir (Truman Show), Bruce Beresford, George Miller (Mad Max), Richard Franklin and others, learning their tools and trades by experimenting before eventually heading for Hollywood.

 

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Wake in fright (1971)
Favored by Martin Scorsese when shown in competition at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, Wake in Fright had been out of circulation for decades when the negative went missing. It was tracked down in the US in 2004 in a container waiting to be dumped. Following its restoration, it screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival as a Cannes Classic title. A classic reborn.

Wake in fright introduces a schoolteacher from the city trapped in the outback mining town of Bundanyabba. Surrounded by drunk, violent men, he tries to get out of this wasteland.

Britt actors Gary Bond (Zulu)and Donald Pleasence (Halloween) with Aussies Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, Sunday too far away) and John Meillon (Crocodile Dundee) head the cast of Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (North Dallas forty, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, First Blood) in this amazing achievement.

Originating from an Even Jones screenplay,  based on the book by Kenneth Cook,  Kotcheff’s direction is technically and artistically well balanced with a slow and carefully constructed build up. It is a men’s men’s world, with its specific codes and rituals, where at first the main protagonist doesn’t belong (and insists on stating about it).  While originally out of place (and we get the feeling he should get out of there fast), what becomes disturbing is the way he slowly gets conned by local misfits. This creates an degree of unwelcoming tension, producing an increasing chain of disturbing behaviours.

The cast is strong (delightful Donald Pleasence as a sicko one more time around)  and makes it realistically  stressful  and threatening.  A state of anxiety sustained by Brian West inspired cinematography,  including the shining outback takes and the infamous night chase sequence. It provides great light, shadow and framing material for Anthony Buckley’s nervous, thus effective, editing and John Scott score, in turn funky (reflecting the times)  but enlarged with the use of electronics such as a theremin (or was it Ondes Martenot? , both early electronic instrument) adding a degree of experimentation that fits the picturesque quality and general mood perfectly.

With controversy,  surrounding the  addition of graphic images of an actual kangaroo hunt by professionals,  which was severely cut in some release, Kotcheff had to justify his use of the cruel footage (these scenes were finally shown uncut after consultation with leading animal welfare groups). West said of the actual hunters that  they were getting drunk in an orgy of (night) killing so the crew orchestrated a power failure in order to end it all. An anecdote that adds to the cult stature of this great film who’s place is in the bookshelf alongside Sam Peckinpah’s straw Dogs.

 

Night of fear (1972)
Director Terry Bourke’s 50 minutes film Night of fear  was originally intended as the pilot episode of a 12-part horror series entitled ‘Fright.

Starring Norman Yemm and Briony Behets (long weekend), this is a creepy, effective, lost in the woods (and cabin in the woods) horror set up that ran into censorship problems in his country. It was banned for a short period of time, finally opening in 1973.

Fans of slasher might find it rewarding,  but there can be retribution also for a wider range of film buffs because of the unconventional no dialogue approach filled with great uncredited music.  Another Ozploitation Oddity.

 

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The Cars that ate Paris (1974)
In the Township of Paris, Australia, inhabitant deliberately plan car accidents and use what they collect at the wreck to provide for their local economy. One survivor, Arthur,  is sent to a hospital . He then witnesses the clash between older residents and youth gone out of control, setting the ground to a fuel injected showdown.

Made on a $250 000 budget, Dead poet society & Truman show‘s director Peter Weir’s first feature is a startling dark humorous, slow paced piece charged with strange situations and subtle social commentary about its time and place. The accident in the opening scene, for example,  is a satire of an Australian advertising campaign of the time.

Be advised : The Cars that ate Paris gets poor ratings on IMDB.  Obviously,  a lot of people are displeased with it. It’s a miss conception… The film creates his own plain logic with the elements contained within its own mythology. It is a bleak satirical and surreal widescreen dramatic farce. It is uneasy, but brilliant.

Among actors from the enjoyable cast, who would eventually go on making an international name for themselves are Bruce Spence (Mad Max 2-3) and John Meillon (Crocodile Dundee).  Producer  Jim McElroy  would work on all subsequent Australian entries by Weir including the Hollywood co-produced The Year of Living dangerously (1982) starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney weaver and Linda Hunt. Weir’s ticket to Hollywood.

The dissatisfaction with The Cars is partly due to the pre-release publicity campaign at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1974. To this day cult horror enthusiasts attention is drawn by the featured image of the famous “killer Volkswagen with spikes”, a publicity that can be partially deceptive. It is not your typical horror or action driven stuff with cars and pursuits, but rather a strange reaction to it. Waiting for the bloodshed or any such ways might then be equally deceptive and the relatively slow pacing and low profile of the film is also surprising to those who wants to see a Truman show-like film. Add also the fact that a lot of public reviews are made from viewings with bad copies. It also received a truncated American release in 1976 by New Line Cinema under the title The Cars That Eat People with editing changes and added narration…

 

Stone (1974)
A raw uneven (but Definitely cult material) Biker wasteland film pre-dating George Miller’s  Mad Max (1979).  Stone was excoriated by critics upon its initial release. A Tarantino favorite,  directed by Sandy Harbutt and starring Ken Shorter, it tells the roadside story of the Members of a biker Club being knocked off one by one, and trying to find out why!  Mad Max anyone?

Aside from its cult aspect, made of strong parts ( but also dull moments and bad acting), it is notable for interesting stunts and the presence among the cast of many actors who, Five years later, would be biking again for the original Mad Max , including Hugh Keays-Byrne (Mad Max’s Toecutter), Roger Ward and Vincent Gil.

While Harbutt doesn’t have Miller’s flair in any aspects of film making, Stone is still a nasty flick with strong cult aura that was picked up on double bills and re-run when Mad max came out.

Worth a look.

 

The firm man (1975)
More of an experiment than Ozploitation.

A man gets an undisclosed position in a company only referred to as The Firm. Given bizarre assignment with no purpose or meaning while being followed by two mysterious agents (one being Bruce Spence of Mad Max fame) he is plunged into surrealistic non-events.

John Duigan’s first feature was made in 16mm on a $15 000 budget. Way to go before making praised films like  The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting (with a young Nicole Kidman) and Lawn Dogs.
The Firm Man is a would be office intrigue… but without the plot nor the intrigue. This is a silly surreal farce creating a universe in the line of Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, Gilliams’ Brazil, David Lynch universe (without the budget or the violence)  or even Kafka’s work.

 

There is no aspiration for real continuity in The Firm Man, so don’t look for one (or you you’ll get angry) and let yourself be taken by its sympathetic low budget foolishness.

This is a likeable cinematic gibberish.

 

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End play (1976)
A young female hitchhiker is murdered. Similar murders happened in the same neighborhood and the police is suspicious of two brothers who seems to have a secret grunge and scheme going on against one another.

This is no major thriller, but an interesting entry for people who might be interested to know its existence as an Aussie investigation film and look into it.

Britt director Tim Burstall gives an intricate but sympathetic slacker starring John Waters (Breaker Morant). It is lively and there is suspense, murders, etc, but it is too clumsy with uneven acting and not very screenplay-wise. Nonetheless it provides its moments of b-movie fun if you do not care too much about unnecessary tangled details.

 

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Mad Dog Morgan (1976)
A pretty violent film, based on the book by Margaret Frances, from the ‘true story’ of Daniel Morgan, french director Philippe Mora is the account of the infamous outlaw of the 1850’s Australia who’s single robbery gets him 12 years of hard labor where he is systematically abused, prompting him to return to crime in a more violent fashion upon his release.

First Production duty by soon to be famous Jeremy Thomas (Bad timing, Last Emperor, Naked Lunch), Mad Dog Morgan is messy but it is a good cult item with realistic but also grotesque violence. It stars Dennis Hopper (who is more of a presence than on an actual acting performance) who got his share of stories about him being under the influence (which is no surprise) during the shooting. He is supported by local stars, Jack Thompson, Hugh Keays-Byrne and Bruce Spence but mainly by the inevitable Native actor (but always good) David Gupilil (Walkabout), as his trusted friend and sidekick.

Sadly, there is numerous poor quality versions of this western in the bush out there that do not give an opportunity to fully appreciate Cinematographer Mike Molloy beautiful use of landscape. John Scott unusual editing with lots of ellipsis and ruptures can even refer to Russian avant-garde, though sometimes it is not clear if it was provoked by editing job from the various greedy distributors…

Disguised as a period drama Mad Dog Morgan is a cool,even partly  sleazy Ozploitation film.

 

The Last Wave (1977)
A Sydney lawyer takes five Aborigines, accused of murder,  for clients.  Plagued by bizarre dreams, seemingly connected with severe weather conditions change,  he eventually shares mystical connection with them.

Special Jury Prize at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival in 1978, The Last Wave is Peter Weir’s third feature and his follow up to the celebrated Picnic at Hanging Rock. It stars American actor Richard Chamberlain and (again!) the wonderful aboriginal actor David Gulpilil.

A mystery drama, with shamanic and spooky overtones, it follows the pattern of early Weir films where he finds the eerie in commonplaces. The set up and ambiance is great and unsettling.

Most of the production personnel on The Last Wave worked on  Picnic at Hanging Rock , Including one of the greatest cinematographers duet in films DOP, Russell Boyd and camera operator John Seale (Seale would go on to become Weir’s favoured DOP for his Hollywood career) doing,  as always,  a tremendous job of putting in good framing Weir’s personal vision.

A great ambient piece.

 

Summerfield (1977)
In Ken Hannam Summerfield, from a screenplay by Cliff Green with Nick Tate (Astronaut Alan Carter from Space 1999) and John Waters, a newly appointed country teacher becomes curious of what happened to his predecessor who mysteriously disappeared.

Originally dismissed by critics, it deserves a look. It is rue it doesn’t fully succeed in its conclusion, like prior reviews pointed out, but the production values and Mike Molloy beautiful visuals, achieving a superb color palette,  makes it a worthy ride. You also get this feeling of possible and mysterious planned disappearance no question asked, a feeling inherent to many Ozploitation films, like being in the right corner of the world to get lost.

Summerfield was supposed to be a Peter Weir’s film (he was busy on The Last Wave). It was made by the production crew of Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) producer Patricia Lowell, writer Cliff Green, composer Bruce Smeaton, associate producer Pom Oliver and production designer Graham ‘Grace’ Walker.

 

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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)
The true story of part white, part aboriginal Jimmie Blacksmith, stuck between his native roots and the white culture. Exploited and abused he eventually snaps and goes into a killing spree.

Fred Schepisi’s second feature, with its mild box office reception at home, was a disillusioning experience and Schepisi eventually left Australia to work in Hollywood. This adaptation of the novel by Thomas Keneally was introduced in competition at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival.

A drama with Ozploitation overtones (you get some exploitative burst of violence), its take on racism against the natives is confrontational and without mercy, a possible explanation for the mild reception. It is beautifully shot (cinematographer Ian Baker followed Schepisi in Hollywood working with him on such film as Six degrees of separation)with a strong cast Headed by Murrungun actor and musician Tommy Lewis (a first timer) with supporting roles including  Freddy Reynolds, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and  Ian Baker.

A crucial and forceful film.

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Long Weekend (1978)
Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend with John Hargreaves and Briony Behets is a fine example of these creepy 70’s Australian Outback films with limited means that still deliver the goods.
As their marriage is on the rocks, a city couple heads on a long Weekend in the Australian outback. They realize Soon enough that they are not the perfect fit with nature. As tension grows, between both, it seems to have an effect on the surroundings that becomes more of a threatening third party.
Long Weekend, with its latent depiction of a malevolent Nature, constantly balances between logic and a string of unexplained   minor but increasing  incidents. Cautious framing by cinematographer Vincent Monton’s team (Road Games, Newsfront) and efficient nervous editing by Brian Kavanagh constantly suggest something bad might happen every minute and gives an hostile feeling of being watch. Peter Burgess menacing sound editing and the music by Michael Carlos, with its experimental electronic overtones, are quite appropriate and complete the whole 70’s theme of creepiness opposed to nature’s beauty. The combine work is quite simple but efficient. And being afraid can be fun.

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Money movers (1978)
Targeted by a series of heist, a security company is enforcing its methods, but what seems to be a possible inside job is overtaken by a crime boss and a corrupt police detective.

Great opening with B-Movie feel, good camera angles by the Don McAlpine (Predator, Moulin Rouge) and John Seale team, over talkative for the purpose, but simple, effective and filled with corrupted people who mean business…

With notable appearances by Bryan Brown (F/X), as well as Ed Devereaux and Tony Bonner, both from the 60’s TV show featuring everyone’ favorite marsupial star: Skippy (1967), Money Movers is an early Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant) movie heist with nasty sequences including murder, torture, toe cutting and on and on.

Beresford, who did Driving Miss Daisy , shooting gory stuff starring the Skippy people . It can’t get any better. And lets face it, Heist films are a guilty pleasure.

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The Plumber (1978)
In Peter Weir’s The Plumber, a young couple, living in an apartment complex, are harassed by an incompetent plumber who makes unnecessary repairs to their bathroom, initiating a never ending destroying process.

A fun psychological thriller, this made for TV film doesn’t resort to graphic violence in order to create chilling effects. Based on two events, one from Weir’s personal experience and an incident that happened to some friends of him, the tension is simply built up inside the claustrophobic setting. The escalating tension comes from a simple question about the plumber just being a simple imbecile and someone with a bad sense of humour or someone with an agenda.

Shot in 16mmm, it is included as a near hidden supplemental feature on The Cars that ate Paris DVD. This is a clever and original low budget bathtub thriller.

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The Last of the knuckle men (1979)
Working, drinking, gambling, and fighting, Tarzan (Gerard Kennedy) is The last of the knucklemen, an iron fist guy in the mining world, confronted by Pansy (Mike Preston), a trouble-making working man.

A film by Mad Max producer byron kennedy, directed by Tim Burstall and starring Gerard Kennedy, Michael preston (Papagallo in Mad Max 2), Steve Bisley (Mad Max‘s Goose).  A bit overlong, this is more a drama than real Ozploitaion, but it gets some elements of it. Its place lies somewhere between the Australian new wave and exploitation cinema. The film hesitates between drama, with a lot of dialogue (but with highly capable actors) and the promised rewarding fist fights. But it sets the mood for a final knuckle showdown with great shots by cinematographer Dan Burstall.

Critics at the time tended to be mixed, with negative view of the masculine world and the brawling. Burstall said of Knuckle that he wanted it to be seen not just as ockerism but as anthropology and it certainly works on that level.

The Last of the knuckle men is a strange and interesting oddity of a film about an ancient race of men.

It is actually a pretty fair drama.

 

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Mad Max (1979)
In the near future, a highway patrolman ( in a world where they look more like mercenaries) is confronted to a vicious biker gang that terrorizes the roads, and who wants to get to him because of an incident.

George Miller’s original Mad Max won the special jury prize at Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival in 1980. Shot on a mere $350 000 budget it made over $100 million worldwide. A legend was born and it made Mel Gibson a star. Like him or not, you could easily see he already had star power. Three cast members : Hugh Keays Byrne Roger Ward and Vincent Gill , had previously appeared in the cult movie Stone (1974), a Ozploitation biker movie said to have inspired Miller.

With its bleak vision, frightening music by Brian May (not the Queen Guitarist), its incredible camera movements by David Eggby’s team and dangerous stunts (despite the shoe string budget) and with the clever use of Radio transmissions (in the Australian version) to complete (again bypassing its budget limitation) the futuristic commentary (partly lost on the American prints, cheaply dubbed with American voices), Mad Max is a classic.
It was condemned upon release by an Australian commentator saying it had “all the emotional uplift of Mein Kamf and would be “a special favourite of rapists, sadists and child murderers”

“The Americans have a gun culture, We have a car culture said its director, George Miller who described driving in Australia as a socially acceptable form of violence. Driving from this state of mind he and screenwriter James McCausland wrote the script assuming people would do anything to keep vehicles moving and that nations would not consider providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late”. Accordingly, McCausland drew from the 1973 oil crisis’ effects on Australians and ” the desperate measures individuals would take to ensure mobility, revealing the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank.

The rest, with  three sequels, is history.

 

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