There is something odd about Frenchman’s Farm (1986), and I mean the place and the movie. It is an isolated farm in the Gold Coast hinterland in Australia and the movie is an isolated movie in that it is a rare ghost/horror/sci-fi movie made in Australia in the mid-80s.
It is by no means the greatest of films of this type to be made – but it is a gently made and coherent movie despite a plot with so many names, that it needs more than one viewing to get a grip on it.
It is also strangely memorable since the first time I saw it on VHS back in the 80s. Several years later, when I was living in London, I came across a copy on tape secondhand in a video store. I watched it a few more times and it has stuck with me ever since.
Set during a heatwave in Australia, when drought has taken hold and there is no rain in sight. Something that seems to have predicted the future – like the police computer in the movie. A young law student, played by relative unknown Tracey Tainsh (no info), leaves her parent’s homestead and heads for Brisbane. She must take a detour due to a bushfire. It is there on a forgotten stretch of road she gets caught in a time warp as she stops on a bridge.
Suddenly she is in the 1940s – 29 February 1944 – to be exact. Her Ford Mustang overheating she stops at a property in search of water. There she finds a newspaper which points to the date of the time warp. In the distance in a paddock she sees a man get murdered. A soldier is decapitated by an oddly-dressed man with a mattock, who is striking in more ways than one. No pun intended. She flees the ominous-faced man back to her car and drives off just in time as the mattock strikes her car. Suddenly she is back in the present day…
This is the opening of Frenchman’s Farm.
Concerned for her sanity, she researches the murder, and finds that the wrong man was charged with the offence. This is where the mystery of the movie really begins and Tracey returns to the town that resides near the farm with her boyfriend and fellow law student and musician played by David Reyne (1959-).
He is sceptical of her story and when they return to the farm they find her hat and water container abandoned when she fled the murderer.
Her interest in the case and her research at the library causes a red flag at the Brisbane Police Headquarters. The case has long held unanswered questions and an aging copper is on the case again as well as a younger one who is mystified by arcane French sentences and numbers being spat out of the central police computer.
Meanwhile the young couple befriend the current owner of Frenchman’s Farm, where the murder happened and where ghosts apparently reside. He is the local “spiritualist” – read: alcoholic – surrounded by ghosts repeating murders over and over again. They also become involved with the local vicar, who spouts history and who may also know more than he is letting on.
Mysterious deaths have been happening on leap years, all having something to do with Frenchman’s Farm. It’s all a mystery. And soon it becomes a treasure hunt for Napoleonic gold as the original owner of Frenchman’s Farm was one of Napoleon’s chief executioners and payroll masters.
“Some people have no respect for religion or history,” says the vicar as he takes the couple on a red herring trip to the local village church crypt. The dialogue in the movie isn’t particularly memorable, so it must be the ideas and “execution” that work. As I say, it’s odd.
One of the strengths of the movie is its trio of Aussie character actors in the form of Ray Barrett (1927-2009 brain haemorrhage) as the drunk, John Meillon (1934-89 cirrhosis) as the aging copper and Norman Kaye (1927-2007 complications of Alzheimers) as the vicar.
Barrett is well known for voicing characters Commander Shore in Gerry Anderson’s (1929-2012 in sleep, dementia) Stingray (1964-66) and John Tracy in Thunderbirds (1965-66). Meillon may be remembered for his role in Crocodile Dundee and its sequel.
There is also an appearance by Tui Bow (1906-93 no info), who was somewhat of a local legend at the time, as she was, for a few years, the step-mother of 1920s movie star Clara Bow (1905-65 heart attack), despite them being around the same age. In fact I read an unpublished autobiography of Tui’s, which said the tales that Clara slept with an entire football team on one legendary occasion was false. In Frenchman’s Farm she plays the town’s museum curator.
The film’s direction has been dismissed as “flat“ and television-like by critics, although I think that was purely knee-jerk at the time. If that is so, it is because director Ron Way (1933-2019) has a rich history in Australian television. He directed the early Aussie sitcom My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours? (1966-68) as well as episodes of The Rovers (1969-70). Way worked with Meillon on several occasions and producer and co-scriptwriter James Fishburn (d1989) (Way collaborated on the script) was instrumental behind Aussie comedy classic The Mavis Bramston Show (1964-68). Fishburn also cast Frenchman’s Farm, which is its strength except for maybe leading lady Tracey whose career failed to blossom following this film – although her scream at the end of the movie is truly more than blood-curdling! Reyne meanwhile proves to be a capable singer of 1980s music when he performs in a Brisbane nightclub, although the choice of song will seem dated to many today, as does his haircut. His band was the real life Cats Under Pressure.
As usual, for a “horror” movie – which this is barely – there are a couple of jump scares, including a great one in a billabong cum water hole that also includes a fantastic crane shot.
In the end and with each viewing of Frenchman’s Farm we are intrigued by the story, one that ends in madness and murder over and over again. Every time the ghost appears, there is the smell of lavender, which itself is unexplained. What will happen in the next leap year? As it turns out only the computer can predict…
Despite its reputation, I still like this movie. I remember a lecturer at university who knew the filmmakers dismissed it as crap at the time. Perhaps it’s my love of time travel movies of which this has an unexplained element. But its use of a computer in the mystery gives it a still contemporary edge. The film though is concerned with the past, in particular its Napoleonic ghost, played by the striking Phil Brock, and the soldiers who were prisoners of war in a German prison camp, which is another plot thread. Brock, incidentally, is a retired stuntman and brother of racing legend Peter Brock (1945-2006 racing crash). It is Phil Brock’s countenance, which is one of the most disturbing things about Frenchman’s Farm. And his choice of weapon to kill is offbeat as well.
Unjustly forgotten, I may be just the drunk in the ghostly homestead, visited by this concoction in the midnight hour, when the dead and the living commune and where we love to visit some of our favourite cult movies. Over and over again.
For an interview with the ghost himself Phil Brock PRESS HERE