Adelaide-based director Mario Andreacchio (1955-) was at the heart of the growth of the film industry in South Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of a core group of directors in that state, he began with a series of varied short films and then moved on to features. The features he has produced vary from family movies to horror, from exploitation action to historical drama. Here I have picked the best of his films to explore.
The four films I have chosen all couldn’t be more different from each other.
They are actioner Fair Game (1986), horror The Dreaming (1988), family flick The Real Macaw (1998) and the historical Paradise Found (2003).
Fair Game is not to be confused with the Cindy Crawford (1966-) movie of the same title, which was made in 1996, or the Sean Penn movie of 2010.
I first came across Andreacchio’s Fair Game in a cheap bin on VHS tape at one of the many video shops I used to cruise in search of something new to watch.
And when I first watched it, it was love at first sight, an instant classic which I had missed upon its initial release.
The film stars Cassandra Delaney (1961-) who was for a short spell the wife of country singer John Denver (1943-97 plane crash after running out of fuel) before their bitter divorce. She is the mother of his daughter.
Fair Game could be called an exploitation movie but it is cleverer and more low key than that despite its sometimes over the top action moments as it tells its tale of a female heroine and her trials out in the bush at the hands of men.
Exploitation usually means much nudity and violence and Fair Game, set in the Australian outback, does contain these elements… but they are not necessarily of an explicitly nasty type. In fact, they are more cartoonish. Thus it is distinct from the run of the mill exploitation flick.
It tells of Delaney, who lives in dusty bush country on her very own wildlife sanctuary. It’s there in the surrounding countryside that the peace and tranquility she has fostered, and the sanctity of it all, is jarringly disturbed and desecrated by three men in trucks. These men sexually harass Delaney and kill local wildlife, we learn within minutes of the film’s opening. Using a Polaroid camera to take a picture up Delaney’s dress is just one of the charming habits of the roo shooters.
With its opening stunt work during a ‘car chase’ featuring a man leaping from truck to truck to car, the speed and pace and tone of the movie is set up immediately with our villains who butcher kangaroos for a living.
The music by Ashley Irwin (no info), who has since gone onto work on Clint Eastwood movies, is also distinctive and one of the best synth scores of an Australian film at the time. The entire range of Irwin’s score is pretty amazing and must be heard, to be fully appreciated.
Poor Delaney is menaced by roo shooters in a way not seen since the minor classic Razorback a couple of years earlier in 1984. As the film progresses, they chase her across the dry countryside, kill her animals and wreck her home. It’s all quite senseless like taking a wrecking ball to Australia Zoo.
“I’m sick of this, I feel like a beer, let’s go back,” says actor Garry Who (1954-), upon finally tiring of his and his pals’ pointless pursuit of Delaney.
Shooting at anything that moves, while Delaney tries to stay alive, this is over-exaggerated and as a result the film contains a great sense of energy. Call it exploitation if you will! It is certainly regarded as one of the great Ozploitation movies of the era as films of this type are now called.
That Delaney is an artist who draws wildlife, while the male characters use guns as their expression of ‘art’ – put the two together and I guess you call it exploitation art. It’s definitely a tale of beauty versus the beasts and a formula tale of adversity and survival against the odds…
“I’m going to call the police,” says Delaney, surrounded by her soon to be captors.
“What are you going to use? Mental telepathy?!,” jokes Who.
While the one-liners are hardly from the Algonquin table, they were never meant to be, as action takes a front seat and Andreacchio’s direction sees it all come together seamlessly. There is one scene which, for the period, could have been thought of as a little shocking, and that is when Delaney is tied topless to the bullbar of one of the 4WD trucks. She is then driven around the countryside much to the delight of the male fiends who are also rather grimy atop of their general antisocial behaviour.
“It’s the best hunting we’ve done in years,” one comments.
If you’re looking for blood and guts, you won’t find it, short of a few dead kangaroos and the film is tasteful and non-exploitative enough to not have Delaney raped.
It’s almost a western at times with the guns and dust and outback scenery and like most westerns, it doesn’t use gore but instead builds tension and a bit of character. After the humiliation of the bullbar ride, it is not long before Delaney finally takes things into her own hands and devises a way to take revenge, an element of the exploitation film and the western. The victim will eventually become the victor… Delaney wears a hat, cowboy-like, as she sits in the ‘sagebrush’ and begins to formulate her plan to strike back. I won’t go into the climax but Fair Game was one of the new cycle of exploitation-western-revenge films to have a female character.
It’s interesting to note that Delaney looks a little like the star of The Terminator (1984) Linda Hamilton, which helped kick off the modern tough as nails woman against the odds. Let’s not forget Ripley in Alien (1979). Delaney also uses a kind of headband like Sylvester Stallone used in his Rambo movies.
Sadly, the film was not a box office hit but Quentin Tarantino is enthusiastic about it in the Ozploitation doco Not Quite Hollywood.
Andreacchio admits to lifting a scene from one of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s films, a director whose films were often recreated by other filmmakers as westerns such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
Fair Game pits female ingenuity against brute force… just as the sun comes up on the so-called ‘prarie’… there’s even a David and Goliath moment with Delaney using a domestic clothes iron as a kind of slingshot.
Andreacchio’s next film is something completely different as it is the ghost story and horror movie The Dreaming (1988). I have discussed this movie in the article on Wayne Groom and feel it is worthy of discussion again. This is because Andreacchio’s movie is again a distinctive work of art and one of my favourite films of the genre for the era in Australia.
Set in South Australia, which is considered the most haunted and perverse state of Australia, especially for its production of depraved murderers.
The Dreaming was a compromise of a movie.
The original story for the script by Craig Lahiff and Terry Jennings was more or less aborted because there was thought to be too much story about incest between the father and the daughter in the film, which one of the producers thought would put off viewers.
Craig Lahiff had wanted to create a film similar to John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), which had been a big inspiration. Indeed, due to this factor and budgetary constraints I am told that pages of the final script were abandoned during production. This is something not uncommon in low-budget productions and in some cases it has helped the final cut of a film.
I was unaware of the film until it was dumped on a cheap label for its original DVD release but upon viewing it – I was amazed at how underrated it is.
Director Andreacchio again uses music along with image to create a mood in the movie unseen in terms of horror on the Australian movie scene. The music is by Frank Strangio (no info) and the Italian born composer has worked with Andreacchio on more than one occasion.
An archaeological professor played by stalwart actor Arthur Dignam (1939-) uncovers a mass grave of slaughtered Aborigines from centuries past… murdered in the 18th Century by European whalers who passed through the coastline and had no second thoughts about rape and pillage.
The opening scene in the cave where the bones were found was ridiculed in its day as looking fake and the noted critic dismissed the film altogether.
Strangio’s music is, well, strange, with its Phantom of the Opera type electronic keyboard at times and yet it adds to great effect the many scenes shot on location around Adelaide and the state, including the recently bushfire devastated Kangaroo Island.
Each scene, no matter how small at times is so well done that just to watch Penny Cook as the archaeologist’s daughter walk down a hospital corridor to the click of high heels a la Lee Marvin (1924-87 heart attack) in Point Blank (1967) is almost worth the price of two dollars I paid for the DVD alone. The scenes the director has created suffer a good case of ‘cool’.
Yes, it’s an 1980s movie but the script still has serious themes built into the use of location… Aboriginal bashing and murder, government cover-ups… ghosts… Dignam carries it with dignity and Cook is a plucky heroine. I can’t say enough about this forgotten film.
“Maybe the witch doctor pointed the bone at her,” says a racist colleague to Cook, who hallucinates that x-rays in front of her are moving. This is followed by a rather trippy scene where Cook moves from the operating theatre back to the cave where the bones of the murdered natives were found.
Without going into great detail, again there is scene and sequences one after the other which are iconic to me, especially if you know the city and state. Others may dismiss The Dreaming as something less than brilliant… But the potency of the film remains and among the phony jump scares and despite a lack of hair-raising moments, the film is special. I am now a jaded horror viewer so it takes a lot to scare me. Oh, to have seen this film on a big screen in its day!
If there is the beginning of an Australian modern Gothic horror tradition, The Dreaming is one of its founders along with the slightly creepy film Next of Kin (1982), which came some years earlier and stars Wolf Creek’s (2005) John Jarratt (1951-). And if there is a modern Aussie Gothic, it is continued in the hit movie Wolf Creek and the lesser known movies of South Australia’s Ursula Dabrowsky. It remains a rich vein of horror not mined often enough. And it hasn’t been until the last decade or so that Australia has been seen as a solid producer of some good horror.
There is mention of the “Isle of the Dead” by a character in one scene which is apparently shot in West Terrace Cemetery where the body of the Somerton Man in buried – another interesting South Australian possible murder case. Isle of the Dead is, of course, a slightly eerie Val Lewton produced mystery drama from 1945 starring Boris Karloff about a plague sweeping a lonely Greek Island. Isle of the Dead is also a place where the dead prisoners of Port Arthur in Tasmania were interred. I’d hate to go there some dark night!
Then there is the Omen-like element where a character is impaled in the street in some sort of freak accident involving a truck and some metal poles. The supernatural and everyday life come together to form The Dreaming.
The Dreaming is otherwise known as Dreamtime to the Australian Aborigines – it was named this by anthropologists – and it is the original religious and cultural world view of the original people of Australia. There’s was a reverence of the ancestral figures to a heroic degree including animals. There was no god or worship just the Dreamtime.
In the movie, the Dreamtime is tainted by the arrival of the Europeans… and the ongoing controversy that Australia Day celebrates the arrival of the First Fleet and thus the celebration of the first massacre of Aborigines which would continue I’m sure for every day of the year… something which leaves Australia in a quandary as to how and when to celebrate the founding of our country.
This is the essence of the movie and thus sows the seed of horror in Australia.
When Cook goes to a country hotel to stay before she crosses to the Isle of the Dead, she sees in the office a painting of a sailing ship symbolically hanging crooked on the wall. And during the night, she hears the ghostly wails of a native girl being attacked and gang raped… Cook can only go back to her room and hope the ghosts leave her alone… which they don’t! Cue Cook sitting bolt upright from a nightmare.
The climax in the island lighthouse has a whaler’s ghost, the spitting image of her father, smashing one of the lights reflective mirrors only to become himself, still a monster of unresolved incestuous tension. Poor Cook has to dispatch him from a great height as he goes to tear off her clothes.
This Isle of the Dead could be seen as a microcosm of Australia, guilty due to its history, yet also home of its own murdered dead, many of them originally criminals, yet still a worldwide beacon as a “happy” and “well balanced” democracy which continues to carry on bravely each new day despite the rape and murder of its original inhabitants at the hands of its forefathers.
It is Andreacchio’s horror masterpiece and an otherworldly key film in the early Aussie horror genre.
Interestingly, the film was edited by Suresh Ayyar (1957-2016 motor neuron disease), who won an AACTA Award for his editing of Bad Boy Bubby in 1994. He received a nomination for The Dreaming in the same category but did not win. It received no other awards or nominations except for a special mention at the Fantafestival in Rome in 1989. Andreacchio’s next film, which I will look at, is also something great and a total departure again. This time it is the family movie The Real Macaw (1998).
For this film as well as the ‘controversial’ Paradise Found read PART TWO.