There are two essential books that celebrate region-specific horror films both well-known and obscure. One is Stephen Thrower’s Nightmare USA (with a companion volume planned). The other is They Came From Within, Caelum Vatnsdal’s history of Canadian horror movies. What these two books suggest is that the best of the cinema’s independent horror films are really regional works. Three of the most famous horror films of all time, Night of the Living Dead, Carnival of Souls, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are really regional films, independently financed and shot far from Hollywood with local actors and crew members. Thus they have a flavor not found in mainstream genre movies, spices of quirkiness, unpredictability, and rigorous bleakness that mainstream movies can’t or won’t allow themselves.
As far as I know there isn’t a book about Australian genre cinema yet, but now there is a film: Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, a survey of Australian films from roughly the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. Not only is it one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, but it is one of the best cinema histories committed to film, and a highly entertaining and funny work in its own right.
Interest in national cinemas seem to go in cycles: Italy in the early ’50s, France in the early ’60s, Germany in the early ’70s, Hong Kong in the ’90s, Romania today. Australia’s vogue, its grand discovery by the rest of the world, came in the mid-’70s, even though it was one of the oldest national cinemas. For festival movie fanatics, Australia provided the ethereal profundities of Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Breaker Morant, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and The Getting of Wisdom; for Academy voters, it was We of the Never-Never; for the masses, it was The Man from Snowy River, Phar Lap, and Crocodile Dundee. For the rest of us it was Mad Max (also known of course as The Road Warrior), Razorback, Dead End Drive-In, and Road Games.
Not Quite Hollywood tracks the underside of Down Under’s cinematic output, the popular films that swept their home country’s box office but that were retitled in America and shown mostly at drive-ins. Hartley follows Australia’s B movie career from the sex comedy Stork, to Howling III, considered by many to be one of the worst movies ever made, with numerous interview sound bites ranging from comedian Barrie Humphries to director George Miller. Quentin Tarantino is also present as an enthusiastic distant observer who, with his usual acuity, notes various trends and themes in Australian B cinema (the role of roving bullies) and highlights unacknowledged auteurs, such as Brian Trenchard-Smith.
According to the history as chronicled in this film, Australian cinema took off as a commercial force in 1970 with a film called The Naked Bunyip, a comical mondo documentary. The enormous success of this film invigorated the industry and encouraged the exploitation of relaxed censorship laws. It also clued filmmakers into the idea that a little bit of vulgarity – OK, a lot of vulgarity – goes a long way. Stork and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, both episodic social satires and Candide-type stories, soon followed – and by the way, Barry Humphries, who co-wrote and starred in the Barry McKenzie series, is wonderfully witty about his role in the re-birth of Australian cinema.
When the phase of tales of sexually inexperienced innocents having strange adventures phased out, filmmakers switched to horror and adventure films, and the doc slips into a succession of profiles of key and lasting genre entries, including among many Patrick, Thirst, Razorback, Fair Game, and Stone, possibly the most uncompromising biker film ever made. Sandy Harbutt was the true auteur on this film, and near-one-man-shows are common in the under-budgeted world of Australian films. This egomania also leads to tensions and conflicting stories and it is interesting to try and sort out the truth between actor Steve Railsback and the producers on Turkey Shoot (also known as Escape 2000), or George Lazenby versus one of his directors (did he punch him or not?). Also interviewed are Gregory Harrison, Judy Morris, and Russell Mulcahy about Razorback, perhaps the ideal genre film of its time, with its outback setting, its roving band of scum, its typical tomboy (Arkie Whiteley) with her skin tight shirts and her skin diver’s watch, and its wandering hero caught up in an inexplicable world. Dennis Hopper talks about Mad Dog Morgan, and Jamie Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, and Richard Franklin talk about Road Games, a sort of Rear Window on wheels. It’s also fun to see the underrated Rod Taylor and the still alluring Susannah York reminisce about the old days – which may be coming back, as the film optimistically concludes.
As a regional artistic institution, Australian filmmaking has the quirkiness of an isolated enclave with its private language and its vague or vain attempts to mimic Hollywood cinema styles. What can look like amateurishness to judgmental outsiders can be a refreshing derailment of desiccated genre conventions by those looking for a new slant on old material. It’s true that Howling 3, for example, can tax the patience of even the most generous minded, but it is also so batshit crazy that its unbelievableness takes it into a realm that transcends its genre as both a horror film and a supposed sequel (though The Howling is a film that has been abused the most by its sequels). But such films as Mad Max have changed the way that Hollywood has made its movies. Not Quite Hollywood is a terrific celebration of that influence.
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