Welcome to the 4th 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 4th edition I take a look at one of the very few vampire films to be made in Australia: the 1979 film THIRST…
SCRIPT: John Pinkney
CAST: Chantal Contouri, Shirley Cameron, Max Phipps, Henry Silva, Rod Mullinar, Christopher Milne, Amanda Muggleton, Robert Thompson, David Hemmings.
PLOT: Advertising executive Kate Davis is kidnapped by the Hyma Brotherhood, a secret society of blood drinkers. Held at the group’s country headquarters where blood is extracted from zombie-like ‘donors’, Kate is told that she is a descendant of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the sect’s spiritual guide. The brotherhood’s leaders disagree over the best way to bring Kate into the fold. Dr. Fraser believes in persuasion but his associates decide to use intense indoctrination aimed at forcing Kate to desire blood.
When I think of the most common sub-genres that most Australian filmmakers seem to tackle when they make a horror film, the main ones that I’ve noticed always seems to be either of the following: serial killers, supernatural, slashers, zombies, psychological and monsters. However did you notice which one was missing from that list? Vampires. Even though vampire films are without a doubt one of the most popular types of horror films out there, it’s just weird to me that more of them haven’t been made. Don’t get me wrong Australia has made a few vampire films here and there over the years, you would think that Aussie filmmakers would have tried to capitalise on their popularity with audiences. While I was doing research for this column, I discovered to my surprise that Australia has only produced six, I repeat *six*, vampire films since the ’70s. The two of which in particular are actually quite well know and happened to also be big budget co-productions with Hollywood: The Spierig Brothers’ 2010 film DAYBRAKERS and the 2002 film QUEEN OF THE DAMNED (although the latter is up for debate whether it should be classified as an actual Aussie horror film or not). However if you were to ask me which I think is the absolute best of the six vampire films that Australia produced, it would be in fact be the very first one that was made: the little seen 1979 film THIRST (not to be confused with Park Chan-wook’s similarly named vampire film from 2009). Sadly like a lot of Australian horror films, it was an instant critical and commercial failure when it was released in 1979. While it isn’t talked about as much as other well know Aussie horror films, THIRST’s reputation has grown over the pass 38 years and is now been highly regarded as an under-appreciated forgotten gem of the vampire sub-genre by those who have seen it.
I have to admit that despite vampire films being one of my personal favourite horror sub-genres alongside both slashers and zombie films, I actually never even heard of THIRST until I saw it featured in director Mark Hartley’s excellent 2008 documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION. Based on the discussion on it, I thought that it sounded really intriguing and the fact that it was an Aussie made vampire film definitely peaked my interest into checking it out. Luckily I didn’t have to wait too long to see it because a few weeks later, one of our local cable TV channels decided to run an all day Ozploitation marathon in celebration of our national holiday Australia Day. What was great about that was not only did I get to see THIRST, I was also able to watch it alongside several other classic Ozploitation films for the first time that day like PATRICK (1978), THE SURVIVOR, TURKEY SHOOT (1982) and DEAD KIDS as well (as you would expect, it was a pretty awesome day). So what were my first initial thoughts on THIRST after I watched it? Well, honestly I thought that it was an decent film overall but at the same time, I did find it to be a little dull in spots. However when I was coming up with ideas on which Aussie horror film I wanted to write about for this edition of the column, I decided that it might be a good idea to check out THIRST again and see if my opinion would change on it in the eight years since I first saw it. Now after rewatching it again, I’m really glad that I gave this film another shot because I honestly liked it so much more on this second viewing. In fact not only did this rewatch push THIRST up there as one of my favourite Australian horror films, it also has cemented it as one of my personal favourite vampire films as well.
One of the things that struck me the most about THIRST is how much of an unique vampire film it is. Being that it was made during the ’70s, it’s not hard to understand why. Throughout the ’70s many vampire films were moving away from the classical takes that we were all familiar with by taking on a more original approach that made that made them feel different from the ones that had been made by Hollywood studios at the point (MARTIN and THE BLOOD SPLATTERED BRIDE are just some of few that made at that time). Sure THIRST does share some similarities with a few of those films (it’s definitely not the only ’70s vampire film to use Elizabeth Bathory as a key element in the story) but at the same time, it also has some other interesting things in it that do make it different as a whole. One of which is that it takes some influences from sci-fi films like SOYLENT GREEN to give it a bit of sci-fi feel when it came to some aspects of its plot. How this original approach worked for me was definitely due to both screenwriter John Pinkney and director Rod Hardy, who both made their film debuts here. The script by Pinkney is both intelligent and extremely well written. He brought a lot of intriguing elements to both the story and characters that I thought were quite compelling. Even the small aspects like the ‘Blood Farm’ subplot, where brainwashed humans (or as they are called in the film ‘Blood Cows’) are harvested of their blood for members of ‘The Hyma Brotherhood’, have some emotional weight to them (what’s funny is that this subplot could easily be its own film). When it comes to the portrayal of the vampires themselves, I love that he takes a completely subversive approach and tries to downplay the supernatural aspects of them as much possible (they don’t have fangs, they can walk around in the daylight etc). I wouldn’t be surprised if the late George A. Romero’s film MARTIN was an inspiration for Pinkney for this take on this film’s vampires. Also I liked the way that Pinkey wrote them to be more like corporate businessmen rather than supernatural monsters. Which gives the film a bit of a satirical edge as well.
On the filmmaking side of things, director Rod Hardy (who previously directed episodes of ’70s Aussie TV shows before making the jump to films) does a truly terrific job with his first feature film. From the very first scene to the very last, he directs the film with such confidence, elegance and style that I just found myself completely riveted by everything that was happening on screen. Plus he knows how to build both tension and eerie dreamlike atmosphere throughout the film. All the scenes where the character of ‘Kate’ (Chantal Contouri) is forced into these nightmarish conditioning scenarios where ‘The Hyma Brotherhood’ try to psychologically torture her into succumbing to her blood thirst and join their society. The way that Hardy executed these sequences was superbly done in every way. Especially one creepy and surreal sequence where he approached it as if it were making a haunted house film. Plus he also does a really good job getting strong performances from his actors. While international stars David Hemmings (BLOWUP, DEEP RED) and Henry Silva (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) are definitely the biggest names of the cast (that’s one of the reasons why legendary Ozploitation producer Anthony I. Ginnane hired them so that the film could have some ‘international appeal’), the film really belongs to lead star Chantal Contouri. She was absolutely terrific in the role as “Kate” and her performance really elevated the film in a lot of ways for me. Her character goes through a lot of emotional and psychological turmoil with everything that happens to her during the film but Contouri pulls it off perfectly. Especially with the ‘conditioning’ scenes, where I thought that she really excelled with her performance.
When it comes to the performances of the supporting cast, I thought everyone gave really solid work with in their roles as well. However the two stand outs for me were definitely both David Hemmings and Shirley Cameron, who played two of the leading psychologists “Dr. Fraser” and “Mrs. Baker” from ‘The Hyma Brotherhood” respectively. Hemmings brought gravitas to his role as the compassionate “Dr. Fraser” and Cameron gave a delightfully icy performance as the truly villainous “Mrs. Baker”. Both actors had a really compelling dynamic between each other since their characters have completely different views on how they want “Kate” to give into her vampiric lineage (“Dr. Fraser” wants to take a reasonable and persuasive approach while “Mrs. Baker” wants to use more forceful methods). Also the score by legendary Aussie composer Brian May (MAD MAX 1 & 2, PATRICK, ROADGAMES) was truly fantastic and the atmospheric cinematography by Vince Monton (LONG WEEKEND, ROADGAMES, SNAPSHOT) was really beautiful. In terms of negatives, there were a few things about THIRST that I did find to be a bit flawed. The major one being the film’s third act. When compared to the previous two acts where I though the filmmakers did a great job for taking the time to develop its characters and story, the third act felt pretty rushed and a bit unfocused instead. It almost seemed like the filmmakers just wanted to hurry up and finish the film already. Plus it didn’t help that the final twist came across a bit half baked because of it. Also despite being one of the film’s big international stars, Henry Silva wasn’t really given much to do with his role as “Dr. Gauss”. Although he does have a very memorable scene involving a helicopter towards the end, which I won’t spoil. Plus there were a couple of aspects in the script that I would have like to have been explored a little bit more (I wish that had more scenes with the ‘Blood Cows’ at the farm).
Overall despite the minor issues that I had with it, THIRST is still a terrific and chilling Australian vampire film that I just found really captivating from beginning to end. It’s an incredibly underrated film that definitely deserves to be talked about a lot more by horror fans. While it might be a bit slow paced for some people, director Rod Hardy (who after this would go to make some more films and as well direct episodes for TV shows like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, SUPERNATURAL, THE X-FILES etc) and screenwriter John Pinkney (sadly this was the only film that he wrote) wanted to craft an original vampire film that was at least was unique compared to other ones that were released during the ’70s. In my honest opinion, I believe that they succeeded in doing that. If you’re someone who has a love for either the vampire sub-genre or Aussie horror films, this is one that you definitely need to seek out for sure. Hopefully you’ll really dig it as much as I did.
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.