Horror Down Under: RAZORBACK (1984)
Welcome to the 11th edition of Horror Down Under, a column series in which I review horror films from my home country of Australia. The purpose of this column will be that it will act as a showcase for various horror related film projects that have been made Australia in hopes that it will get you interested in checking them out for yourself. I’ll be reviewing a wide range of Aussie horror films of various quality from the excellent to the terrible, the all time classics to the latest releases to the completely forgotten, etc. For this 11th edition, I explore the Australian horror/Ozploitation classic that is director Russell Mulcahy’s 1984 giant killer boar film RAZORBACK…
DIRECTOR: Russell Mulcahy
SCRIPT: Everett De Roche (Based on the Novel by Peter Brennan)
CAST: Gregory Harrison, Arkie Whiteley, Bill Kerr, Chris Haywood, John Howard, Judy Morris.
PLOT: Carl Winters (Gregory Harrison), a grief-stricken American husband who has come to a remote corner of Australia to seek answers in the death of his wife, a TV journalist who was investigating a story on kangaroo poaching. Carl meets Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr), a man obsessed with hunting down what he says is an enormous razorback boar that consumed his grandson. Although he was acquitted, most of the locals believe that Jake murdered the boy himself and invented the crazy story about a giant pig. Jake tells Carl that he believes the razorback is also responsible for his wife’s death. At first sceptical, Carl becomes a believer when he encounters the beast. He and Jake track it to a dog food processing plant, where the owners are illegally butchering kangaroos for industrial use. The factory operators are also feeding the dog food to the gigantic razorback, increasing its size and carnivorous appetite. Joined by farmer Sarah Cameron (Arkie Whiteley), Carl and Jake set out to kill the powerful mutant.
There’s no question that when Steven Spielberg’s classic film JAWS was unleashed in U.S. cinemas in the summer of 1975, it pretty changed cinema forever and helped usher in, for or worse depending on who you ask, the summer blockbuster season that’s still much continues in this very day. However like all box office smash hits, its success also launched a popular new film trend in its wake: the killer animal film. While JAWS wasn’t killer animal film that was produced (one of most earlier notable ones being Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 film THE BIRDS), it’s popularity and huge box office numbers definitely kick started a lot of filmmakers/Hollywood studios into wanting to capitalise on its success by producing their own similar type of films. Sure some of them have ended up being pretty bad or complete knock offs of JAWS with the only change being that it had a different animal in it (I’m looking at you 1977’s awesomely bad GRIZZLY), there were still quite a number of them that turned out to be either great or classics in their own way (PIRANHA, CUJO, ALLIGATOR just to name a few). One of the most well know killer animal films to come out in the post-JAWS era was definitely from Australia when prominent Aussie music video director turned filmmaker Russell Mulcahy made the 1984 giant killer boar film RAZORBACK, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Peter Brennan.
Sadly despite having a lot of major hype behind it (some of which including the producers memorably selling the film as “JAWS on trotters” during its media campaign), the film received lukewarm reviews from critics and only did moderately well at the box office when it hit Australian cinemas in 1984. Which was disappointing since it was both one of the most expensive films ever produced in Australia at the time. However despite this setback, RAZORBACK would later that year go on to receive six nominations at the Australian Film Institute awards, which is won two for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Now over 35 years since its release, RAZORBACK has become both a world-renowned Australian horror classic and one of the most seminal films of the Ozploitation movement. Plus the film even managed to get fans in form of both filmmakers Quentin Tarantino (who once again continues to be a recurring figure in this column) and JAWS director himself Steven Spielberg.
I know what I am about to say may sound completely weird but it’s very much true: I have a special place in my heart for RAZORBACK. Why’s that you ask? It’s because it was one of the very first Australian horror films, or even horror films in general, that I became aware of when I was a young kid. Back then I was absolutely scared of horror films/TV shows and refused to watch any of them. Although that didn’t stop my older siblings and cousins from telling me all about them like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, CANDYMAN, the IT mini-series and many others. However it was RAZORBACK that I vividly remember being the one horror film that they would talk about the most. When I watched a clip from from the opening scene sometime after that (which was the opening scene where the Razorback smashed through a character’s house and takes their grandson to devour), it absolutely scared the crap out of me that I honestly thought that a Razorback was going to come after me (to be fair, I was around 6-8 at the time). Once I started becoming a huge horror fan during my teens, I decided it was time to final get around to watching the film from beginning to end. So what did I think of it the first time I watched it? I have to say that I really enjoyed it! I’ve seen the film many more times since then in the pass 20 years (most recently on the brand new Blu-Ray that Umbrella released, which contains a new 4K restoration of it) and I have to say, it surprisingly still just as fun as the first time I saw it.
Granted while it definitely isn’t on the same level as JAWS or anything (it does suffer from a number of flaws that I’ll mention in this column) but that being said, it doesn’t stop it from being a really entertaining and very stylized killer animal film that knows how to keep to you engaged throughout its running time. Right out of the gate this film just sucks you in with both its absolutely astonishing visuals and the memorable opening scene (while I’m not the first person to point this out but I don’t think that its a coincidence that this opening scene and the one follows it, in which the character of “Jake Cullen” is put on trail for the suppose murder of his grandson by the community, very much mirrors the infamous death of baby Azaria Chamberlain in Australian in 1980, in which her parents Lindy & Michael Chamberlain were accused of murder after she was taken and killed by a dingo). This is definitely due to director Russell Mulcahy, who I believe is one of the key ingredients as to why I believe RAZORBACK works as well as it does.
While many of today’s most acclaimed and well known filmmakers (David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michael Bay, Michele Gondry etc.) have started off their career making music videos, people seem to forget that Aussie director Russell Mulcahy was one of the very first ones to make that leap from the music video realm to feature films. Before getting into the director’s chair for RAZORBACK, Mulcahy had already directed countless classics music videos for many legendary acts during the late ’70s & the ’80s (Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Duran, Duran and many more) and as well as one feature film under his belt with the Dudley Moore/Peter Cook comic documentary DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN. The former in particular was one of the main reasons why he was hired by the producers to direct RAZORBACK. Based on the end results, Mulcahy definitely was the right choice overall. I thought he did a great job with how he directed this film. His trademark and unique visual style that brought to all of his music videos is on full display throughout it. While I’m sure some people will see RAZORBACK as just simply style over substance (I would be lying if I said it wasn’t) but it’s hard to deny that from the very first frame to the last, this film is a such visual and sublime feast to the eyes that you can’t help but be intoxicated by its grimy beauty. Mulcahy could have easily have approach it directing wise in a pretty straight forward matter, but he gives the film a surreal dreamlike quality that makes it look incredibly unique compared to other killer animal films that were made being around that time. Also he did a great job with handles the films most intense and action-packed sequences really well.
Plus Mulcahy had a really great collaborator in MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR and future Oscar-winning DANCES WITH WOLVES cinematographer Dean Semler, who also definitely deserves an equal amount of praise of his work here.Every single shot that Semler puts together throughout the film looks absolutely stunning and he captures the harsh isolated feel of the outback brilliantly. In fact some of Semler’s most stylised shots in RAZORBACK bizarrely reminded me of the technicolor cinematography of films from the 1930s and 1940s like GONE WITH THE WIND (I honestly I never thought I would ever compared to these two films together in the same sentence but here we are). Together both Mulcahy & Semler’s approach to this film definitely elevated it into something far more memorable and special than it had any right to be. On one of the new special features the recent Umbrella BluRay called “A Certain Piggish Nature”, which had film historians Lee Gambin, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Sally Christie and Emma Westwood discussing the film, one of them during it described RAZORBACK as Australia’s answer to SUSPIRIA on a visual front. I thought that was an odd comparison but the more I thought about it, it actually makes kind of sense. The same with Mulcahy saying in a recent interview that feel like a mixture of JAWS, DELIVERANCE and WAKE IN FRIGHT.
When it comes to other aspects of the RAZORBACK, it’s a bit more of a mix bag. The main one being the film’s performances, which I felt were all over the place in terms of quality. While Gregory Harrison was fine in his role as the main character “Carl Winters”, I did find him a bit of a bland onscreen presence when compared to everyone else in the film. Still he does have his moments every now and again. I honestly think that if Mulcahy’s original casting choice of, no joke, Jeff Bridges was given the role, I feel like “Carl” would have been a more interesting character (it’s hard to believe that the producers turned the choice of Bridges was because they felt that he didn’t have ‘international appeal’ despite the fact that he was a huge star and 3 time Oscar nominee by this point in 1984). As the two main female characters, Arkie Whitely and Judy Morris were both solid as “Sarah Cameron” and “Beth Winters”. Even though they weren’t given much to do, they were able to bring a little something to their roles to make them engaging regardless. Despite the fact that their characters feel like they are out of a completely different film, both Chris Haywood and David Argue are memorable as the derangedly cartoonish human villains “Benny & Dicko Baker”. I can see a lot of people hating them due to how incredibly over-the-top both their performances are, but I enjoy the insanity that they brought to RAZORBACK. Even if the characters feel more right at home in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 than they do here. However the stand out performance for me was definitely Bill Kerr, who I thought gave a great performance as the “Captain Ahab” like character of “Jake Cullen”. Kerr brings a sense of gravitas and tragedy to the role, which I made the character truly compelling to watch.
When it comes to the technical side of things, RAZORBACK does have its strengths and weaknesses as well. While screenwriter Everett De Roche’s script is decent for what it is, it does feel rather straightforward and formulaic when compared to his other more interesting horror work that had he had written previously before this film (PATRICK, LONG WEEKEND, SNAPSHOT, ROADGAMES etc.). Sure he does bring some unique elements to it, it just never really quite elevates the script from being a standard killer animal film. Plus I could have done without his incorporation of an attempted rape scene as well. The score by Ira Davies (the front-man of the Aussie rock band “Icehouse”) was terrific. He did a great job at crafting some themes that range from being creepy and intense, to being dreamlike and beautiful. The production/costume design is fantastic and it gives the film a other worldy feel to it at times. But of course the real star of the whole is definitely the “Razorback” itself, a brilliant animatronic creation that was brought to life by special effects guru Bob McCarron. Even though the filmmakers take a JAWS-like approach by barely showing us the “Razorback” for most of the film but once we get to final act, we see the creature in its full giant monstrous glory and it looks realistically terrifying.
Overall while there are definitely some flaws within in RAZORBACK that stop it from being a truly excellent killer animal film like JAWS or THE BIRDS were, it’s still a pretty thrilling, unique and entertaining one that I always have a great time with whenever I sit down to watch it. Also there’s no denying both its legacy and popularity as an classic of Australian horror cinema to boot as well. While most killer animal films that were made during the ’70s and ’80s were pretty much easily forgotten as soon as they hit cinemas, RAZORBACK has managed to stand out from the crowd and became beloved cult classic that’s still fondly talked about by horror fans 35 years later. Based on the strength of his work on this film, it opened up the door for Russell Mulcahy in Hollywood to become a highly in-demand director for both film and TV. In fact his next directorial effort after RAZORBACK was making another major cult classic film of the ’80s: HIGHLANDER. If you’re one of those people out there who still hasn’t seen it or enjoys a good killer animal film, definitely seek out RAZORBACK out. As far as JAWS knock offs go, this film is definitely one of the best and most memorable ones that’s for sure.
Is there any Australian horror films you would like me to cover for Horror Down Under? Leave your suggestions in the comment section below or tweet them to me at Twitter.com/BedeJermyn and I’ll put them under consideration for future editions of the column.
You can check out previous editions of Horror Down Under here.
Written by Bede Jermyn