Welcome to the 12th 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 12th edition, I take a look at a landmark 1973 Australian horror film that was one of the very first ever produced: NIGHT OF FEAR…
DIRECTOR: Terry Bourke
SCRIPT: Terry Bourke
CAST: Norman Yemm, Carla Hoogeveen, Mike Dorsey, Briony Behets.
PLOT: Insane sadistic hermit stalks and captures those who get lost in his part of the woods. A young woman whose car broke down is about to find out what he does with them next.
While Australia has produced many horror films over the pass few decades, there’s only a select few that some people would say that can only be categorised a true landmarks of Australia horror cinema. Whether they are ones that have become major box office/cult film success stories either here or overseas (WOLF CREEK, PATRICK, RAZORBACK) or earned massive worldwide critical praise (THE BABADOOK), some of these groundbreaking and important films helped put Australian horror on the map by each being the very first of their kind to be made here. However there’s a question that must cross everyone’s mind every now and again: what was the very first Australian horror film ever made? Every country around the world that is best known for making horror films (America, Britain, Japan, France etc.) had to have their beginnings somewhere, so it would be no question be the same for Australia too. While there has definitely has been discussion as to what was the very first Aussie horror film ever produced, many believe a couple of Aussie silent films released between the 1920s-1930s (1921’s THE GUYRA GHOST MYSTERY, 1923’s THE TWINS, 1924’s FISHER’S GHOST and 1931’s THE HAUNTED BARN) could be the first ones to fall under that category since they reportedly contained some elements of horror in them. Sadly we’ll never really know for sure since three out of four of those films are now considered lost. However if we were to talk about what was the first full-fledged horror film to be made, that would easily be the 1973 film NIGHT OF FEAR.
What makes NIGHT OF FEAR such an interesting and unique film overall other than just being a Australian horror cinematic landmark, is how it was both conceived and made. The film was never intended to be played in cinemas at all, as it was in fact originally produced and shot as a 50 minute pilot for a 12 episode horror anthology TV series called FRIGHT, which its writer/director Terry Bourke had been developing for the Australian ABC Network. Not only that, the film was also going to be quite experimental in its approach to the story by having absolutely no dialogue in it. Unfortunately after the executives of the network viewed the finished version of NIGHT OF FEAR, they were so disturbed by it that they got cold feet and decided to not to move forward with the FRIGHT TV series. Believing that the film had a lot of potential on its own, Bourke decided to release the film in cinemas instead at the end of 1972. However he hit a snag when the Australian film ratings group Films Board of Review outright banned the film from being screened theatrically due to both its violent content and, surprisingly, rather tame sex scene. Luckily after a few months, the ban was eventually overturned and NIGHT OF FEAR was finally released in Aussie cinemas to solid box office numbers in March 1973. After it’s theatrical release was over, NIGHT OF FEAR went unseen for over 30 years until the Australian distribution company Umbrella finally released on DVD in 2005 as a double feature with another horror film that Terry Bourke wrote and directed in 1975 called INN OF THE DAMNED (which was also developed to be an episode of FRIGHT in its early stages before the series was cancelled).
Now I’m going to sound like a complete broken record having mentioning this many times other previous entries of this column, but I’m going to say it again: I first became aware of NIGHT OF FEAR when I saw the film featured in the documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION back in 2008. After hearing that it was both one of the very first Australian horror films ever made and first notable films that help usher in the Ozploitation movement in the early ’70s, it definitely made me very intrigued to check the film out. Surprisingly I didn’t get around to finally watching NIGHT OF FEAR until a couple of months ago when I was doing researching on it for a upcoming podcast series that I have been co-developing on Ozploitation films. However I also knew when I first started writing this column for ScreamCast.com, that I needed to write about this film at some point for a future edition due to its importance in Australian horror cinema. Now despite its reputation, the main question I know a lot of you probably are asking is this: is NIGHT OF FEAR actually any good though? Well, in my personal opinion… Yes, it definitely is. While I will admit that the story on how it was both made and ahead of its time it was makes it more interesting as a whole, NIGHT OF FEAR is still a really solid horror film that I found equal parts intense, engaging and unnerving. Even if it wasn’t a ground-breaker, writer/director Terry Bourke definitely crafted something that’s completely unique and fascinating in the landscape of Aussie horror films.
One of the first things that struck me the most about NIGHT OF FEAR, was just how dark and disturbing of a film it is. While the film might seem quite tame by today’s standards in comparison to other horror films that have come out since its release 46 years ago, it’s still quite shocking to see how writer/director Terry Bourke was able to push the envelope and getaway with a lot of stuff that happens in this film back when he shot it. Especially for something that was originally going to be screened on television, which honestly still blows my mind. Seriously, how on earth was something like *this* made for TV? After watching it myself, I can definitely see why the ABC executives at the time in the early ’70s decided to not move forward with Bourke’s anthology horror series FRIGHT after they viewed this pilot episode for it. It’s a gritty, grimly, repulsive and intense horror film that was surprisingly quite full-on in how it handled the darker aspects of its story. Plus it has many images and scenes in it that definitely stick with you after it’s over. Funnily enough even though NIGHT OF FEAR ended up playing in theatres in the end instead, its opening credits still begin with the original title card of the FRIGHT TV series. In fact in a lot of ways this film cuts from the same cloth as similar horror films that were released during that same era like the original 1974 version of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which actually didn’t come out until two years after this one did. However what makes this film different and standout from other ’70s exploitation horror films, is of course how Bourke approached it from both a storytelling and filmmaking standpoint.
When it comes to his direction, Terry Bourke did a really good and confident job with how he made the film. What makes NIGHT OF FEAR such a unique film experience as a whole is how Bourke uses the film’s very simple straightforward premise to basically make his own take of a silent film. Other than sound effects, the music score and some minor vocalisations (screams, moans, humming etc.), the film contains pretty much very little to no dialogue in it whatsoever. The only time we hear any dialogue spoken throughout it is when a character called simply “Horse Girl” (played by Briony Behets) calls out once for her runaway horse during the pre-credit sequence and when we hear a news bulletin delivered on the radio. Outside of those small instances, all the film’s characters barely speak a word at all (since we don’t hear of their names, they credited as “The Man”, “The Woman”, “The Lover”, “The Truckie” and “Horse Girl”). Plus since NIGHT OF FEAR only has a short 50 minute running time, Bourke doesn’t worry about either dialogue or character development scenes and just goes straight into the horror. Although he does make up for the lack of those scenes by using visual storytelling to convey to us who these characters are as people throughout the story.
When it comes to the cast themselves, the stand outs were definitely both lead stars Norman Yemm (“The Man”) and Carla Hoogeveen (“The Woman”) respectively. Hoogeveen’s fright-filled performance as “The Woman” was so incredibly believable in how it was portrayed, it honestly didn’t seem like she was acting at all. It felt like she was actually genuinely terrified throughout the film. Yemm was absolutely chilling as the human monster that is “The Man”. Every time he is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off him due to how intimating and vile of a character he is. In a lot of ways, he feels like a early version of “Mick Taylor” from the WOLF CREEK franchise. Unfortunately compared to the leads, the supporting cast don’t have much to do with their roles due how limited each of their screen-time is. On the technical front, I found NIGHT OF FEAR’s sound design really interesting. Most of it (even including those minor vocalisations) was, as common practice with any film, added in during post-production, but it’s the way how it was mixed together here that it came across as rather eerie and unnerving to me. Another aspect about NIGHT OF FEAR that also makes it quite memorable, is its ending. I won’t spoiler what happens since a lot of you probably still haven’t seen yet but let’s just say that if you don’t like or have a phobia of rats, there’s a scene towards the end of the film that is probably going to freak you out a little.
Overall while I personally think that on its own as a film NIGHT OF FEAR is no more than just a rather solid and effectively creepy little horror gem, it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s an hugely fascinating and important film that help break ground for the horror genre being a huge part of Australian cinema. Seriously if it wasn’t for the success of NIGHT OF FEAR, it’s most likely that a lot of our classic Aussie horror films that we all love probably would have never been made in the first place if it weren’t for its influence. Especially during those early years of the Ozploitation movement. In fact I would say that it’s even an very early precursor of the backwoods horror sub-genre that would be perfected later on with the likes of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES and so many others (although I can see a lot of people debate me on that). However despite it being a landmark, it’s kind of shame that NIGHT OF FEAR really isn’t discussed about as much as other Aussie horror classics that came out after it’s official release in 1973. Hopefully now that film is more readily available, all of you out there will be interested in tracking it down and watching it for yourselves. I’ll say this: if you’ve always wanted to know where Australian horror cinema began, it all started with this film. Sure it may not seem too remarkable when compared other similar of its type, but it’s still an essential viewing for anyone who loves Aussie horror.
Written by Bede Jermyn
Note: NIGHT OF FEAR (1972) is currently available to purchase through Umbrella Entertainment on DVD as a double feature with INN OF THE DAMNED here or to rent/buy/stream on Amazon Prime Video U.S., U.K. or Australia.
You can check out all the previous editions of Horror Down Under here.