The Cult of Director Ian Barry’s The Chain Reaction

*contains spoilers

The Australian exploitation film The Chain Reaction (1980) was, along with Mad Max (1979), a ground-breaking and extremely well-made genre film directed by Ian Barry (1946-).

Barry, like George Miller on Mad Max (1979), created something with the vision of an Aussie Roger Corman, a low-budget masterpiece, which remains his best movie.

Director Ian Barry on the Robo Warriors (1996) set

But by just going ahead and making The Chain Reaction, Barry caused himself to be blacklisted in the industry and it would be a number of years before he would make another big screen movie. In his later years, he would concentrate on television both in Australia and the United States.

His films Seventh Floor (tv movie 1994) with Brooke Shields (1965-), Blackwater Trail (tv movie 1995) with Judd Nelson (1959-) as well as the tv movies Inferno (tv movie 1998) and Airtight (tv movie 1999) each have their plusses which make them of interest to cult film watchers.

Barry also directed the follow-up and kind of sequel to Robot Jox (1989) and Robot Wars (1993) in the form of Robo Warriors (1996) which had a troubled shoot in the Philippines. Furthermore, he was on set and edited one of the first true Australian cult movies Stone (1974). He is, as a result, a bit of a legend…

The Chain Reaction (1980) poster

But it is The Chain Reaction for which he should be best remembered. It is a film about a nuclear spill and while it was made around the time of similarly themed The China Syndrome (1979), the script had already been written by the time of that film’s release.

Let’s go back and look at Barry’s development as a filmmaker which led to this winner… and it was Barry’s Uncle Harold, who was a Sydney plumber, that was the first inspiration for the youngster.

Henry Fonda (left) and Tyrone Power in Jesse James (1939)
Ian Barry’s legendary Uncle Harold… “the architect of my life”.

Uncle Harold built, in the late 1940s or early 1950s, a cinema in his Arncliffe backyard using twin carbon arc projectors from a demolished cinema. It was set up for 50 people and his uncle just loved movies and projecting. It was there one evening that Barry saw Jesse James (1939) which featured Henry Fonda (1905-82 heart disease). This kid of eight thought after seeing the devastating Easy Rider (1969) type sudden ending of the hero being shot in the back: “If this stuff can make me feel this rush of emotions, I want to make it”. Barry’s childhood was one influenced by the movie serials which used to be shown or re-shown in the early 1950s such as Zorro and Tarzan which he loved and they would influence his later semi-cult low budget item Airtight.

“I was more into story than who was on the screen in those days,” said Barry, when I interviewed him. He is on the spectrum with motor neuron disease which was diagnosed in 2008 – but he worked until 2018.

A Yashica 8mm camera

“My aunt went to Japan for a holiday and brought back an 8mm Yashica camera and I used that to make many home movies,” he said.

Of the short films Barry made, one was the unfinished The Trudgants… “My leading lady was about 16 at the time and we realised the wardrobe wasn’t fitting her anymore… We found out she was up the duff!” The film was abandoned.

Then came his first 16mm film The Hitch Hiker… “I began working as a stage hand at the ABC. I was only eighteen. I recall I probably borrowed the camera from a props-man.”

A poster for a Zorro serial

It was a shoot which had his entire cast and crew getting arrested for using water pistols in a very real manner in public… “I had to ring my father on Mother’s Day morning… I had recruited two or three stagehands and two old schoolfriends and a guy who was ex-mail room who had done some acting classes… He became the homicidal maniac that the police were pursuing in The Hitch Hiker… and, of course, the real police put us behind bars that morning… Dad never borrowed money and he gets a call from me from the police station requesting probably 400 pounds (ed. a fortune in those days!) for the eight of us…” And Barry’s Dad had no alternative but to visit the local SP bookie over the road who had cash lying around the house… “The money was promptly paid back!,” insisted Barry.

The Chain Reaction (1980) on the cover of Cinema Papers

To backtrack a little, Barry didn’t start out with editing in mind as a career which is where he spent some time in the industry. After an obligatory three months as a mail boy he got a transfer to the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Gore Hill studios as a stagehand. It was there that Barry, who was originally interested in technical drawing at school, thought that when he got into tv, it would be as a designer… Barry tagged along with a friend that was a wheeler dealer “a bit like George Cole out of Minder” who did the rounds of the studios in Sydney. “And I saw my very first cutting room… this was late 1963… the cutting room was filled with trim pins and strips of film that the editor was putting together or working on… The whole room appeared to have magical kind of aura about it and I thought there and right then that I need to go this way”.

A young Ian Barry at the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the 1960s

Barry would work first in current affairs cutting news footage for tv and a would later make his first major short film Waiting …For Lucas (1973) which he described as an “amateur low budget piece”. But it got noticed by critics and was blown up to 35mm and had a run at cinemas. It was even screened for then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1916-2014).

It was during the making of this film that Barry got to know one of its stars, Sandy Harbutt (1941-2020) and their friendship led to Barry working as editor-on-set on the cult biker movie Stone (1974) directed by Harbutt.

A re-release poster for Stone (1974)

One wonders if there were many drugs on the set: “Only dope… only marijuana,” said Barry, who ingested the stuff “only involuntarily”. As for director Harbutt, whose vision and enthusiasm for Stone led it to becoming a classic: “I never recall him being stoned a lot… I mean he was pretty quick on the ball and lucid most of the time”.

Barry remembers during the production they went into the underground location where part of the movie was set early on a Friday: “We were down there filming and didn’t come out until 10am Sunday morning!” … “Stone was a personal passion of Sandy’s and he was very infectious… I mean everyone was totally consumed by that movie probably more than I’ve ever worked on films since.”

Actor Vincent Gil with a dope pipe and a girl in a scene from Stone (1974)

There are two cuts of Stone with the original running at around two hours, while a shortened version followed shortly afterwards at around 95 minutes. Harbutt saw the original cut and said: “Fucking, wow man, that is a masterpiece. I love it. We don’t touch a frame!” But early viewings by distributors suggested trimming – the length – and the film had to be cut after the final sound mix.

“I remember… being at Atlab and cutting into the final mix, which was not the ideal way to finish a picture,” said Barry.

The two-hour version is hard to catch up with, but it was certainly a case of grace under pressure for the filmmakers, as the final cut is the true masterpiece.

Hugh Keays-Byrne (left) and Sandy Harbutt in Stone (1974)

“I thought it was too long,” said Barry in retrospect about the original cut.

The years leading to The Chain Reaction saw Barry create a teaser of a short film to interest investors in a sci-fi script entitled The Sparks Obituary (1978). This film, which runs less than thirty minutes, was shot in 1978, and tells of technology by a blind director where images are tapped directly from the director’s (Harry Sparks) cerebral cortex … or actually thinking a movie directly into existence! It’s an ingenious film with an ending to match…

Director Harry Sparks in The Sparks Obituary (1978)

It was producer David Elfick (1944-) who asked Barry, as they were about to pitch the finished Sparks Obituary short to Hollywood, if he had any other scripts? … The Chain Reaction, or The Man at the End of the Freeway as it was originally known, was mentioned to Elfick, who quickly raised the money through the Australian Film Commission, television stations and banks in a matter of two or three weeks…

Producer David Elfick

To cut a long story short, just two weeks before filming began the AFC rang and said they were cutting the budget because of the failure of a number of films they had invested in at the box office and that The Chain Reaction would be made as a television movie and not a cinema feature. For instance, the Australian Film Commission, which is a government funded body, had a budget of $10 million dollars in 1979-80 and it received $2.5 million from its investments. With investment halved on The Chain Reaction, Elfick and Barry, who was set to direct, had a moment of truth meeting… “(Elfick said) ‘What do you reckon?’ and I still remember saying: ‘You know what? Let’s go out and begin shooting… they’ll love the rushes and they’ll reconsider their investment’.”

A quad poster for The China Syndrome (1979)

It was a bold move by the pair in terms of creativity and confidence in their script and ability but it may have been one that they possibly might have regretted… You see, the film fell behind schedule, which wouldn’t have endeared it to backers as some of the set-ups became time consuming as production logistics weren’t as quick as expected. Director George Miller of Mad Max was brought in to film second unit action scenes which are wild and very kinetic. They are of the type which possibly couldn’t be repeated after the introduction of safety regulations within the industry after the accidental death of a focus puller in the auto-themed Midnite Spares (1983). But, despite some of the action directed by Miller, the results are seamless. That is because, as Barry mentioned: “With my ability to draw, I’ve always storyboarded anything action based and George worked faithfully with my boards.”

Emergency workers at The Windscale Fire in 1957

The Chain Reaction stars Steve Bisley (1951-) as a working-class hero car racer and auto shop owner. His auto shop at the beginning of the film is peopled by Mad Max veteran Roger Ward (1936-) and it even has a cameo by Mel Gibson (1956-).

Bisley and his wife go off to the countryside where they have a second home and they make love in one of several nude scenes, both male and female, in the movie… But the main story of The Chain Reaction has begun already with an earthquake causing a nuclear spill at a remote Australian nuclear dumping site.

Mel Gibson cameos in The Chain Reaction (1980)

A man is contaminated and escapes the cover-up with only days to live and turns up in the early hours on the veranda of Bisley and his wife played by Arna-Maria Winchester (1949-2008 cancer) just as they’re making love. The actor Ross Thompson (no info) plays one of the most convincing Germans I have seen on film and I only realised long after that he wasn’t actually a Bavarian import.

Ross Thompson (left) and Arna-Maria Winchester in The Chain Reaction (1980)

So, Heinrich, as he is known, has committed murder and he seems to have lost his memory as he thinks it’s the year 1957 which just happens to be the year of one of the first nuclear disasters in Britain which was known as The Windscale Fire. Also, the place where the spill happened in the movie uses the acronym W.A.L.D.O. (Western Atomic Longterm Dumping Organisation) which echoes of the Australian A.N.S.T.O.  (Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation). Apparently, Barry used the former so it would add an extra layer of mystery that could later be revealed as a corporate entity not a character.

A scene from George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973)

Anyway, without giving too much away, the bad guys are after Heinrich and want to also cover-up the fact the spill has reached the water table and has contaminated the nation’s water supply… The race is on to reveal the conspiracy and survive the armed men who have turned up in droves dressed in radiation proof suits much like those featured in George A. Romero’s (1940-2017 lung cancer) The Crazies (1973) which were probably inspired by emergency workers at The Windscale disaster in 1957.

The Chain Reaction’s troubled shoot happened in a New South Wales town named Glen Davis. Barry had come across the area one drizzly evening as he was driving with his wife through the countryside and found it intriguing. Glen Davis is also the site of a legendary Aboriginal massacre and the ruins of the Glen Davis Shale Oil Works which during World War Two employed over 2,000 people and was the place of many an industrial accident.

The ruins of the Glen Davis Shale Oil Works was a perfect location

People could say these events hung over the production of The Chain Reaction and may have influenced its troubles, but there is no doubting that the old oil works was a distinctive location. It helps to make the movie look great along with its other associated locations… But it is Barry’s script and touches as a director that make The Chain Reaction a cult movie.

Bisley and Winchester are terrific as is theatre actor Ralph Cotterill (1932-) playing against type as the main bad buy… You’ll also see Toecutter from Mad Max in the form of Hugh Keays-Byrne (1947-2020) giving another spirited performance as an anti-nuclear activist.

I love this movie from the small touches of the elderly switchboard operator and her cat through to the wild car chases… Then there’s Richard Moir (1950-) as Junior Constable Athol Piggott who is Barry’s favourite character in the movie. Moir dreamt up the line, as Bisley floors the accelerator on his ute and Piggott pulls out his gun: “Look, do you want a spare head in that hole of yours, Stilson?” and used it in the first take, according to the director. Barry described Moir, who turned a cliche on its head as a ‘comic genius’ who remains unfazed today despite severe Parkinson’s.

The nuclear spill has hit the water table in The Chain Reaction (1980)

The characters are as strong as the actors and while some maybe stereotypes we must remember that this is a genre movie after all. I saw The Chain Reaction first at thirteen on a Saturday in a full cinema and on one of the biggest screens possible and it blew me away. I was excited that such a film could be made in Australia. I couldn’t see Mad Max as it was restricted to people over eighteen and the VHS home revolution was yet to go mainstream… But George Miller’s Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior (1981), which came in the wake of these movies, certainly underscored that this sort of filmmaking was alive and well a year after The Chain Reaction had scored bullseye for me.

One of the action scenes from The Chain Reaction (1980)

For Ian Barry and David Elfick there would be no real glory upon its release and while Russell Boyd’s cinematography got an AFI nomination along with the editing, production design as well as sound… the film, the director and the script, along with the cast were ignored. It must have seemed like an elephant in the room to those involved with the film at the awards ceremony.

You see there was already a controversy surrounding the film and the AFC stripped Barry and Elfick of any ownership of the film due to the end result of the production going way over their budget. The original budget was $630,000 before it was stripped back but with Barry and Elfick going rogue and the troubled shoot, it came in at around $650,000 in the end and it was then that an example was made of the filmmakers.

The Chain Reaction (1980) trailer

Barry was blacklisted and his phone did not ring in regard to drama gigs for close to three years – so Barry successfully turned his talents to the advertising industry as a matter of survival. It would be some time before he would make another feature film. But that film was merely a drama and lacked the urgency and gut-wrenching thrills of The Chain Reaction. Any momentum the director may have had to capitalise on the success of The Chain Reaction with another genre piece had evaporated. And any follow-up action scripts Barry had written in the meantime would still have to wait…

Meanwhile, to go back to The Sparks Obituary, and Lorimar in the States showed interest enough in the film to take a copy of the movie and the script back to the States with them. Eighteen months later they released Brainstorm (1983). A direct case of cause and effect which barred any career move internationally on that project. Barry and Elfick were tempted to sue, but didn’t.

A scene from The Sparks Obituary which was ripped off by Brainstorm
One of the Brainstorm rip-off moments

So, that moment of truth between the pair which delivered The Chain Reaction had its very own chain reaction. The title, incidentally, comes from the original hypothesis behind the nuclear bomb, to quote from the old Hollywood film Above and Beyond (1952). Try to see The Chain Reaction on a big screen!

Barry’s next big screen feature movie was the little-known drama Minnamurra aka Outback aka The Wrangler (1989) starring American Jeff Fahey (1952-). It had a reported budget of over (AU) $7 million and is set in Man from Snowy River type locations and while it’s okay, it is not one of my favourite Barry films, although Fahey is effective as the star. I’m just not a big fan of romances. Perhaps Ross Berryman’s (1954-) cinematography looked better on the big screen as well.

A poster for Seventh Floor (1994)

However, Barry would make interesting tv movies, as he transitioned to the small screen, and I recently saw the Brooke Shield’s film Seventh Floor which was shot in Sydney. She’s always beautiful and in it she plays a young widow who is menaced by an equally young Japanese tech genius who has issues over his mother making him slaughter small animals as a child! It is a tv movie but Seventh Floor is well made and has an artificial intelligence element towards the end which was ahead of its time.

An advertisement for Blackwater Trail (1995)

Shot in 25 days with a budget of no more than three million dollars, it is a companion piece to another tv movie made around the same time starring former The Breakfast Club (1985) star Judd Nelson (1959-). That film is called Blackwater Trail and it has an Aussie ensemble almost half as good as The Chain Reaction but that’s because it was made on half the budget. There are local stars such as Peter Phelps (1960-), Mark Lee (1958-) and Rowena Wallace (1947-) among others.

Judd Nelson (right) in a scene from Blackwater Trail (1995)

Blackwater Trail is perhaps a by-the-numbers serial killer movie which uses Bible references as the killer’s signature device to show his ‘genius’… What is interesting is that unlike the same year’s Seven (1995) starring Brad Pitt, this serial killer movie is set in a country town instead of a thriving metropolis. There are some reviewers who like this movie with the Radio Times printing: “director Ian Barry delivers some genuinely scary jolts”. There are others who lump this and Seventh Floor in the uninspiring tv movie category. Seventh Floor got a best tv movie nomination by the AFI but appears Barry missed out again. A last word on Blackwater Trail and that is Barry underrates his work on this film and that, while its no masterpiece, it definitely has its moments and showed that Barry definitely had his mojo back.

Ian Barry (left) directs Ring of Scorpio (1991)

As a result, they are above average for Australian tv movies at the time and Barry had already excelled with the tv miniseries Bodysurfer (1989) and Ring of Scorpio (1991). The latter dealt with some women who plot revenge against a drug dealer who made them work for him and had them jailed as a result. Barry is proud of this one, yet all record of whether he was nominated for his direction by the AFI appears to have been deleted! He had already been ‘forgiven’ by the AFI as he got nominated for Best Director for the Bodysurfer miniseries and deservedly so… No cigar though. But stuff award shows and all their politics!! Barry deserved recognition for The Chain Reaction script.

A poster or VHS cover for Robo Warriors (1996)

It would be because of Blackwater Trail that Barry was slated to direct what was an unofficial follow-up to the cheap cult sci-fi movies Robo Jox and Robot Wars. Even they aren’t officially deemed related! The director claims to have never seen those films which have interesting histories in themselves. Barry’s film, which is called Robo Warriors (1996), as a result, is probably the best and freshest of the three which features a climactic battle between giant robots. The effects take a different approach to the original movies which had stop motion effects by David Allen (1944-99 cancer) whereas this time they are more of men in a suit variety.

The full-sized robot built on a lava plain in the Philippines for Robo Warriors (1996)

Shot in the Philippines, this was once more a troubled shoot for Barry.

“Robo Warriors added a new dimension to Murphy’s Law; everything that could go wrong did go wrong. From bribes, standover threats, feuding film family fisticuffs on set, you name it!” I suggested to the director that a kidnapping might not have gone astray and he said that it “might have provided some light relief.”

James Remar in Rent-a-Cop (1987)

The star of Robo Warriors is James Remar (1953-), who is that actor usually cast as the villain and plays menace so well in such films as 48 Hours (1982) and cult Burt Reynolds (1936-2018 heart attack) movie Rent-a-Cop (1987). He’s one of the good things about Robo Warriors as he plays a burnt-out character who comes to the party for the decisive end battle. The film also features a young Kyle Howard (1978-) who went on to do much tv and his fresh-faced teenager balances Remar’s character perfectly. From what I can gather the film has a strong following in Europe.

Stephanie Niznik and James Remar in Inferno (1998)

Producers were so impressed by Robo Warriors that Barry was asked to make the American tv movie Inferno (1998). This sci-fi which is not to be confused with the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie of the same title is about solar flares or something which threatens to destroy the planet Earth by sending temperatures over 180 degrees Fahrenheit! Of course, it concerns mainly characters that populate Los Angeles!! James Remar is once again cast as the hero and he’s good as the disillusioned doctor who helps the world when it’s on the brink of destruction. Barry liked working with the actor which is why he used him again and while Inferno is undeniably cheap, it must have had maximum small screen impact in its day.

Legend Debbie Reynolds and Neil Patrick Harris in The Christmas Wish (1998)

Barry was excelling at television, especially with those cliff-hangers for a commercial break and he would work with actors such as Debbie Reynolds (1932-2016 stroke) on The Christmas Wish (tv movie 1998) and Jason Robards Jr. (1922-2000 lung cancer) in Going Home (tv movie 2000) which are a couple of dramas I haven’t seen. He described both actors as “pure, pure professionals” to work with.

Advertisement for Airtight (1999)

It was his success with Inferno which saw Barry return to Australia to make what I think is his most underrated tv movie entitled Airtight. This is a film dismissed by practically everyone on IMDb in the user reviews… as goddamn awful! But this extremely low budget film, which was shot for around three million dollars again, is one of Barry’s best in terms of the child who saw all those serials back in the 1950s. After viewing it at least three times, I can say… it improves! Whether that’s because of the relationships between the characters which includes the hero being the son of the head bad guy, or the fact that its threadbare production is possibly inspired by Terry Gilliam’s (1940-) Brazil (1985) and some sort of Gotham City… it is basically comic book stuff. One of the filmmakers involved called it “camp sci-fi” which amused Barry. Actors such as Andrew MacFarlane (1951-), who plays the mogul that wants to sell air to the masses on Earth which is quickly running out of the stuff, seem to be in step with the camp vibe which, at times, is genuinely as daffy as the fake American accents which abound the mainly Aussie cast.

American actor Grayson McCouch in Airtight (1999)

Barry had been hawking the script for Airtight around since 1982, when it seems the dream of making it another film after The Chain Reaction came to a grinding halt.

“Airtight is why I believe a script is never dead, especially in L.A. … I’d raised the money in 48 hours on a sixteen-year-old script,” said Barry.

Fake vertical and horizontal airshafts were constructed in the old Wide Bay Powerhouse where most of the film was shot. And I guessed that was the case as the film has a feeling of a certain but indeterminate time and place. There are the touches from Barry’s beloved serials as a good old-fashioned wipe from one scene to the next as well as those built in cliff-hanger ad breaks that I mentioned earlier.

Andrew MacFarlane and Shane Briant in Airtight (1999)

With so little money, plenty of fun was had with this one and it shows, just like they probably did with the serials back in the day. The film is possibly an anachronism of sorts which is why it is almost timeless. It also isn’t gory, there’s no sex or language as it is pure escapist fun. Watch it with jaded eyes if you wish but Airtight is Barry’s last masterpiece.

He did the slightly forgettable tv movie The Diamond of Jeru (2001) which passes off what looks like Queensland’s the Gold Coast as Borneo with star Billy Zane returning Down Under after his previous appearance in The Phantom (1996). The beauty of that film, which is based on a short story by prolific western writer Louis L”Amour (1908-88 lung cancer), is you can watch it again and enjoy it, like much of the film adaptations of that writer’s work.

The electronic soundtrack of The Chain Reaction (1980) is also to be noted

The gamble of making The Chain Reaction the memorable experience that it is and not just some forgotten tv movie paid off for Ian Barry in the end. They can remove the director from the rights of the movie but by rights it is still his film and always will be! The film is definitely lightning in a bottle!!

Asked if there were shoots that he had a good time on after so many troubled projects, Barry said: “I really loved Airtight, it was so wacky that everyday there would be a lot of humour on the set… I had a great crew on that… I guess Robo Warriors was a real adventure culturally and film challenge-wise. I guess Stone as well… They are the high moments of film enjoyment for me.”

And I’ll use a good old-fashioned fade to black!

For an interview with Ian Barry which includes excerpts from his own diaries about these movies PRESS HERE.

For an article about the cult movie Stone (1974) where Barry was editor-on-set PRESS HERE.

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