The films of Australian filmmaker Murray Fahey (no info) are very low budget but couldn’t be more diverse. Of the four movies which impressed me most to write about – two are comedies and two are horror movies… And they are all original to some degree.
For example, his comedy/drama Sex is a Four Letter Word (1995) is far more dramatic than say his follow-up Dags! (1998) which is pure silliness and all the more enjoyable as a result. Then there are his two horrors which are Encounters (1993) aka Voyage into Fear which is a basic slasher type horror made on a shoestring, while Cubbyhouse (2001) aka Hellion: The Devil’s Playground, is an epic – for its budget – supernatural horror which seems to have its tongue planted in its cheek amid the general bloodiness.
Fahey’s four films were edited by master editor Brian Kavanagh (1935-) and it is a working relationship which proves that filmmakers can create something special even with the most limited of resources. The starting price of a Fahey movie seems to be in the range of around a million dollars or maybe a bit less.
Murray Fahey is a graduate of the Australian Film Television and Radio School who started out as an actor in the mid-1980s with small roles in such films as Brian Trenchard-Smith’s (1946-) Dead End Drive-In (1986) and Frank Howson’s (1952-) What the Moon Saw (1990) as well as a series of appearances on Australian television. After producing a short film in 1992, he made Voyage into Fear as producer, writer and director.
Voyage into Fear is a movie which is now described as an Aussie exploitation feature and so carries a modicum of respect. It is also a movie in search of a more compelling title which conveys what we are about to watch as its other title Encounters doesn’t quite capture the movie’s content or tone either.
Known as Voyage into Fear in the United States, we start with a good credit sequence of the type common to American horror – it even resembles the titles used in the Netflix show Stranger Things – while composer Frank Strangio’s (no info) music gives us a kind of Friday the 13th signature accompaniment. Strangio would do good work on The Dreaming (1988) and work on Fahey’s two comedies as well.
We are presented with a little girl named Madaline who is afraid of the dark… and it’s not surprising because her aunt is Maggie Kirkpatrick (1941-), better known as Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson in Prisoner Cell Block H. Rather than kiss her niece goodnight, Auntie Helen from hell flicks the bedroom light switch off… It is a switch in the head of Madaline as an adult, as she still cannot sleep and stands in the lounge room in the middle of the night with the light on.
Kate Raison (1962-) plays the adult Maddy and she has been seen more recently in the Aussie tv soap Neighbours (1985-). Raison excels in the lead but she will probably be best remembered for her role in another Aussie tv drama A Country Practice (1981-93).
Maddy’s husband is played by Aussie tv actor Martin Sacks (1959-) who was so great in the vastly underrated Aussie new home buyer comedy Emoh Ruo (1985). Another star from that film Joy Smithers (1963-) would appear in Fahey’s Sex is a Four Letter Word.
Fahey used what appears to be an inexperienced film crew when it came to feature filmmaking for the shoot of Voyage into Fear. He had already written, produced, directed and acted in another film the previous year which was a comedy I haven’t seen called Get Away, Get Away (1992). I can’t even find a review of this comedy but in contrast to Fahey’s horror follow-up, it shows a kind of artistic schizophrenia which seems to be the key to Fahey’s fertile creative mind.
Meanwhile poor Maddy is visited by the ghost of her dead baby brother while she has dreams of stabbing her husband in the hand when she loses her temper. It’s all a great mystery as Maddy and her husband head for the countryside in search of what maybe the answer… the wreck of a car which killed her brother and parents while she was still only a child.
“You stupid little girl….,” Aunt Helen’s voice echoes in the ether.
And this is just the beginning of Voyage into Fear with its nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980 kidney failure) Spellbound (1945) as well as that good old tradition of gas-lighting best shown in George Cukor’s (1899-1983 heart attack) Gaslight (1944). I’m sure they stole my undies! There’s also a scare scene lifted from Pet Sematary (1989)…
So there are several influences in Voyage into Fear but it is its great use of basic and cheap location such as bushland and an old dark country house with its creepy aged resident which helps makes the film climax rather solidly. It is an assured low budget horror debut and Fahey was wise to use an experienced editor and sound editor. The atmosphere of a dark and stormy night coupled with the aged farmer who may or may not be a killer in the mind of Maddy who may also be on the brink of becoming a murderer herself…
Perhaps the film lacks the scares compared to the horrors of today, but, hell, most horror viewers are already jaded when it comes to the genre anyway… it’s just the general grimness of Voyage into Fear which makes it worth a look.
There is also an appearance by the Nightrider from Mad Max, Vincent Gil (1939-) who says: “On a night like this I’d rather have a kiss, know what I mean?” when Maddy gives him fifty bucks for getting her car out of the mud on a secluded track.
An interesting thing is that a key is the actual key to the movie and so is an eye and so it is perhaps the ultimate voyeuristic solution in terms of horror. It is the innocence or the dangerous nature of a keyhole.
I will also make mention that the aged farmer and part time poacher is played by Martin Vaughan (1931-), a well-respected Aussie thespian, whose disagreeable presence makes the film all the more worthwhile. Vaughan is a kind of Aussie icon for his work in tv miniseries Power Without Glory (1976) which was based on the 1950 historical novel written by communist Frank Hardy (1917-94 heart attack). Previously, Vaughan had tied with Jack Thompson (1940-) in Sunday too Far Away (1975) for an AFI award for Best Actor for his role in Billy and Percy (1974) as controversial Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes (1862-1952). Vaughan would later get a nomination for his role as horse trainer Harry Telford (1877-1960) in another iconic Aussie movie about the famous horse Phar Lap (1983) which died mysteriously in America in the 1930s.
Vaughan and Raison help anchor Voyage into Fear despite the film not reaching any real dizzying heights. The blood is used sparingly as the tension mounts to the climax where the trapper is trapped – and I mean that with a double-edged sword or blade! It’s enough to drive Maddy truly, madly… mad.
Sex is a Four Letter Word (1995) is Fahey’s first real cult movie and a major achievement on a shoestring of less than a million dollars. This comedy drama which has six characters at a dinner party talking openly about sex came years before the appearance of the tv series Sex and the City (1998-2004).
There’s laughs as well as tension to be found within this chain reaction of sexual tales and reminiscence. The credits start with a newspaper columnist who will be one of the guests at the dinner party sorting through sexual questions sent in from the public… This character is played by Tessa Humphries (no info) who is the daughter of the comedian Barry Humphries (1934-) of Dame Edna Everage fame. She has made a couple of other interesting movies which are both horrors including Colin Eggleston’s (1941-2002 suddenly) slightly disappointing Cassandra (1987) and the effective astral projection flick Out of the Body (1988).
Humphries’s character is named Tracy and we learn that she is frigid because she was molested by her father as a five-year-old … “True love is a bit of a myth,” says Tracy later on.
A comedy you say? Abortion, homophobia, domestic violence… they are not the ingredients for an amusing film and yet between the serious tales told by the guests, there are tales which are simply amusing. You wonder how much of the film was improvised and how much of it was written by Fahey himself who is again producer and director.
“We’ve got television now… who needs to mate for life,” says one character.
Fans of actress Miranda Otto (1967-) who was Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings movies can note her presence, along with Gallipoli (1981) star Mark Lee (1958-) whose feature film career stalled after he played the boyish plaything to a rich man in The Everlasting Secret Family (1988). Lee is playing another gay character here.
“My brother thought and IUD was a street directory” quips one while: “wanking was a province in China” and cunnilingus was a county in Ireland… Carrickfergus anyone? The conversation flows amid the general amusement of the ensemble. It would appear nothing is off limits as honesty is the policy of the drunken evening as it’s recorded on video tape.
Interesting is the contrast it makes to other movies of the day as well as those past and this couldn’t be symbolised more so than with a framed poster of the Australian movie The Squatter’s Daughter (1933) which hangs prominently in the background. It is also a case of if these walls could talk and the sexual tales they could tell…
I saw The Squatter’s Daughter at the NFT while I was living in London around the time Sex is a Four Letter Word was released in Australia. The Squatter’s Daughter was originally released under the title Down Under in the United Kingdom and I guess it’s ironic that I missed Fahey’s film upon its release as it was too small or lost on the London film circuit at the time.
The Squatter’s Daughter is a very dated boring movie despite its bushfire climax and even its director Ken G. Hall (1901-94) thought little of it. The poster has an illustration of star Jocelyn Howarth (1911-63 cirhossis) who went on to work in Hollywood under the name Constance Worth. Her sexual laundry was kind of aired in the courts in the States after she married star and womaniser George Brent (1904-79 emphysema and natural causes) in 1937 after a six-week romance.
A few weeks after their marriage in Mexico, Brent was sullen and the pair were in court claiming the union wasn’t legal… I don’t know if there was an argument about the marriage not being consummated which was common at the time… The court thought otherwise despite Howarth’s pleas on the stand and she had to sue for divorce and in the end she didn’t take any of Brent’s money. Her film career stalled and in the end she only made forgettable B-pictures.
“I was too proud to accept money from a man who didn’t want me. I’d not be so proud now,” she said in a 1945 interview which showed the matter never went away and that was around the time of her last film appearance. Everyone has a story about love or sex.
The other poster in the lounge room in Sex is a Four Letter Word is Brother from Another Planet (1984) which is a low-budget sci-fi by director John Sayles (1950-). It seems to be an indirect reference to Sayles’s debut movie Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980).
This drama which follows the relationships of seven friends over the course of a weekend was in fact the inspiration for The Big Chill (1983) which is an all-star cast cult favourite. Love is a Four Letter Word has been described as a sort of Australian version of The Big Chill as that film also had close friends reminiscing together. But in terms of budget it has more in common with the Sayles movie which was made for approximately $60,000. Thus, hidden on the wall is the statement that independent movie making is alive and well since Brother from Another Planet was Sayles’s follow-up to Secausus 7, while Fahey’s Love is a Four Letter Word was a follow-up to Voyage of Fear.
Fahey’s film has characters from macho and straight, nerdy and middle class through to near outrageously gay as this fly on the wall ‘recording’ of the sex lives of those who sip red wine and order pizza when the roast is burnt pair off in bedrooms, at the beach and around the Hill’s hoist clothesline. It’s underrated as Kavanagh’s editing is unobtrusive and the performances consistently even.
Don’t confuse sex and love although they are probably interchangeable and may go together… Meanwhile the film’s middle-class discussion of something as unintellectual as the four letter word of the title is also interchangeable as it is either love or f#*k. It certainly makes an interesting stepping stone from the coyness of the discussions in The Big Chill to the once upon a time outrageousness of Sex and the City.
If Sex is a Four Letter Word is a Valentine to middle-class sex, then Dags! (1998) is another more original Valentine to lesser intellects of the working and lower middle class. Centring on a group of friends or a community, of sorts, it is framed as a nature documentary of the type Sir David Attenborough (1926-) is so famous for narrating. It’s just this is a study of ‘dags’ which in Australia is a nickname for a lock of wool matted with dung hanging from a sheep’s butthole… it also is another word for an entertaining or eccentric person according to the dictionary.
Really a dag is a distinct type of person and common to Australia says anthropologist Sir Richard Cranium or ‘dickhead’ and there are many types of dag… so many that it seems Australia is populated by dags from stoners to drunks to those always on the make for sex among many other types. Like animals being watched, the film watches the dag in its natural habitat.
“All dags recognise the dag inside themselves…,” says Sir Richard about the species. “In fact, you’re probably sitting next to a dag right now.”
Dags! is a total departure from Love is a Four Letter Word. It has great comic performances from a cast of relative unknowns. If there’s a face to recognise it is Angus Sampson (1979-) who was ghost investigator Tucker in the Insidious movies.
“Don’t Tina, he’ll have a heart attack,” says one girl to another who deliberately takes her top off to give a balding old father doing the gardening in his backyard a heart attack which he promptly does collapsing with a smile on his face.
“You girls should be ashamed of yourself,” the man’s wife reacts.
Get the picture? The comedy is broad but uniquely Australian. It is the type of comedy which came in the wake of Kevin Smith’s (1970-) Clerks (1994) and Mallrats (1995) as Jay and Silent Bob are of the dag variety. In other words, it’s a clever and entertaining observation of what could be seen as the lower forms of life in the community even if it is ourselves that we also see in that eco-system.
The peculiar Australian idiom and situations with stoners watching kid’s band The Wiggles perform the song Henry the Octopus for instance is – far out man! If there’s an epic quality to the low budget Dags!, compared to wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain, it is in the mundane beauty of the dags as they speak at cross-purposes and say stupid and totally needless things and argue just as stupidly and needlessly. This epicness simply relates to behaviour we recognise in ourselves or friends or family members. Misguided though the dag may be, they are still loveable to one another as they belong to a tribe that ultimately either wants a lay or a takeaway.
“If you can’t take the heat, get out of the fireplace,” one female dag argues during fornication… It’s plain human nature, just like animals in the wild.
A video shop features prominently, as its owner wants to make the Guinness Book of Records for being robbed the most times, and Fahey gives himself a good role as an ‘philosophicall’ dag who can’t quite grasp what a conspiracy really is.
What is so beautiful about the movie is that there is no real contempt for these characters but rather it’s a warm and loving embrace of someone after a hard day in a world full of dags who also can’t help being a dag themselves. Despite the language and adult themes, this sweet acceptance of who we are, tells us to forget pretence and laugh at ourselves, which is as close as you’ll get to understanding your own nature and the meaning of life.
The credits boast “more dags than Ben Hur” and the film is probably the ancestor to comedian Paul Fenech’s (1972-) equally inspired Fat Pizza (2003) and Housos vs Authority (2012).
But to look further back and these films are the culmination of the beginning of the resurgence of the Australian film industry which began with They’re a Weird Mob (1966). In that film, a recent Italian immigrant encounters difficult but amusing situations as he meets the Aussie dags of the day and grapples with their slang and culture. That film too was also an observation of the nature of Australia. The mild racism of that movie about an Italian outsider is forgotten in Dags! with an Italian character named Enzo who beds the ladies and recommends to his mates a lady who does a few tricks and for a hundred bucks will do the lot: – “She’ll teach us everything we need to know about car repair,” one dag enthuses to another about this woman.
So, it is all the more beautiful for that multi-dag-cultural sentiment rather than the derogatory dag-o reference.
Fahey’s two ‘comedies’ are distinctive just as his second horror movie Cubbyhouse (2001) aka Hellion: The Devil’s Playground is distinctive in that there is a very slight but amusing tone to it. Sadly, for some reason it would spell the end of the director’s feature career for more than a decade.
Cubbyhouse is his most polished work but he is not the producer which may be telling. Whereas Fahey had produced the previous three movies I have discussed, Cubbyhouse appears to be a concoction by several different producers including well-known Aussie David Hannay (1939-2014) who was an executive producer on classic Stone (1974) as well as a producer on Ian Barry’s short The Sparks Obituary (1978). Hannay also produced the horror movies Alison’s Birthday (1981) and Kadaicha (1988) aka Stones of Death. These two horrors were written by Ian Coughlin (1946-2001 cancer) who gets a co-writing credit along with Fahey on Cubbyhouse. Alison’s Birthday has its admirers while Kadaicha is probably a little disappointing but I won’t go into those movies which perhaps fail because they take themselves a little too seriously.
Between Dags! and Cubbyhouse, Fahey produced with director Rod Hay (1947-) a drama film about heart transplants and corporate corruption entitled Change of Heart (1999). Once more there are no reviews to be found.
But back to Cubbyhouse and co-writer Coughlin had us looking in our backyards for pagan sacrificial altars in Alison’s Birthday. This time it’s the humble child’s cubbyhouse or Wendy house as they are known in Britain.
In Fahey’s film, the cubbyhouse in the overgrown backyard of an unloved and unwanted old house in newly developed suburbia has links to murder and maybe a gateway to hell. You can’t get more epic than that and it does for cubbyhouses what The Amityville Horror (1979) did for houses and The Shining (1980) did for hotels, according to an interview with one of the co-stars Craig McLachlan (1965-). His casting as a real estate agent who sells the house to the unsuspecting new owners shows a slight tongue in cheek nature to the production.
Apparently, Fahey saw Coughlin’s script for Cubbyhouse in the early 1990s after Hannay dumped a pile of his scripts on the director’s desk. There were several drafts by Fahey but I don’t know how much Coughlin contributed to the finished product as he died around the time the movie was released.
The cast assembled for the movie include American actor Joshua Leonard (1975-) who was fresh from the unexpected success of The Blair Witch Project (1999). He plays the son of an American woman played by The Matrix (1999) star Belinda McClory (1968-) who also has two much younger children. There’s also an appearance by Jerome Ehlers (1958-2014 cancer) who had been impressive in the Aussie Linda Blair (1959-) exploitation movie Fatal Bond (1991).
Fahey’s movie kicks off with a reference to Australian entertainer Bobby Limb (1924-99 cancer) on a car radio who had recently died and who, as a born-again Christian, possibly would have abhorred being in such a project. That aside and we are introduced to the ‘haunted’ house in flashback where satanic rituals involving children and lots of blood took place in the backyard cubbyhouse… Some thirty years later and number six still stands within the new housing estate with its old letter box intact and bearing the faded sixes on either side creating ‘666’. Not a great place to live unless you’re on a budget and the Americans move in. There’s an original Tor Johnson (1903-71 heart failure) mask which has a quick appearance just as it did in the film Dead Kids (1981) aka Strange Behaviour. Fahey is having fun with a bigger budget and indulging in small horror touches while he also gets to use early CGI for several scenes, especially the ending.
Actor Peter Callan (no info) who was Sir Richard Cranium in Dags! makes an appearance which reassures us that Fahey’s independence in the film was respected at least at the beginning of the project.
There are vines which appear to have come from the rape scene in Evil Dead (1980) that attach themselves to children’s legs and perhaps it’s nothing new but Fahey’s direction is inventive. Take for instance the scene where a pinprick of blood spills on the floor of the cubbyhouse as mother and son argue: there is a well-mounted growing sense of disturbance with a doll’s eyes glowing while leaves are whipped into a mini-tornado as they threaten to engulf a little girl in an ingeniously conceived effect of a blanket of leaves swirling around her. This scene may even be more effective than the climactic CGI which Fahey probably had no say in at all. Kavanagh’s editing is also quick and exciting.
The young actors who play the younger siblings are well handled by the director who proved he could handle youngsters well in Voyage into Fear although the little ones in that movie appear to have been relatives.
Viewed through the prism of a child’s mind and Cubbyhouse is quite a scary movie when cutting yourself with a splinter as you adore the pentagram drawn on the cubbyhouse wall leads to voices that whisper around you… Jaded viewers will find no such wonder.
“Are you scared of Satan?,” asks the local greasy fish and chip shop owner of young Leonard who is disrespectful in return… “It’s the cubbyhouse which is pure evil,” the shop owner tells them and he should know as he was there thirty years earlier. It perhaps seems mildly silly but that’s a part of the movie’s attraction.
One of the children’s arms crosses into another dimension only for their hand to return bearing a strange ring, while mother has to put up with the demon Murzazeal popping up on her computer screen. The children are his according to this demon…
There’s the sense of a doll’s house, or a child’s perspective, due to some of the studio work outside the main house passing for the garden at night. It’s unfortunate that this aspect was not uniformly used or developed as it had a feeling of otherworldly dislocation in that the evil is linked to the world of the children.
Leonard’s paranoid dream that his younger siblings are in fact possessed by an evil demon is echoed by the twin characters played by Ehlers, one of whom is the fish and chip shop owner and his brother, who were once children and instrumental in the death of their father.
The cubbyhouse in this movie is eternal and like evil itself it cannot be destroyed or its actions easily erased as its tentacles are far reaching, illustrated in one amusing scene when Ehlers’s shop owner and Satanist is pulled down a drain through a grate by a vine… The metal grate has the serial number 666 embossed on it somewhere… and the vine comes back moments later to snatch the leftover pair of glasses in a humorous encore.
There is the placement of a fictional comic book named Island of Terror which evokes memories of the 1966 movie starring Peter Cushing (1913-94 prostate cancer) of the same name where the monsters are small creatures with a single tentacle or vine-like appendage which are poorly realised. That film started optimistically enough with a possible cure for cancer and was written by noted comic strip writer and cartoonist Edward Mann (no info).
“Nasty little creatures, aren’t they?,” says Cushing about the poorly devised ‘things’ in Island of Terror. Mann also wrote The Mutations (1974) aka The Freakmaker where plants are crossed with humans and that film has an effectiveness which rivals Tod Browning’s (1880-1962) Freaks (1932) with its use of unfortunate real ‘freaks’. I guess I make this link because of the use of multiple titles for this movie, a fate which befell both of Fahey’s horrors.
Cubbyhouse has hints of Poltergeist (1981) and also a chainsaw wielding ghost or demon of McLachlan as well as a Village of the Damned (1960) look in the eyes of one of the children. There’s also a The Exorcist (1973) like banishment of the demon at the gates of hell!
Run of the mill horror? Despite its budget limitations, Fahey’s script may appear to have every horror cliché in its creation of a mythos around the humble cubbyhouse. It’s a rich concoction though. The film even ends with a faux mini Steadicam shot just like the original The Evil Dead. But the director doesn’t pretend it’s anything new and the jokes, on the odd occasion, show us he is taking in this stride the fact he is not creating a bona fide horror classic. There is no pretence.
Cubbyhouse is almost a hardcore gory horror movie which is softened by the use of children in the plot and what is perhaps not so dazzling CGI work. The coupling of more horrific prosthesis effects with better CGI was needed if it were to succeed on a hardcore horror fan level. I’m sure hardcore fans would have loved to have seen one of the kids decapitated! The use of a heavy metal song over the end credits seemed to underscore it was meant to be a hardcore venture but its use only serves in being ironical. I guess Satan and heavy metal have a certain affinity. Sadly, its US title of Hellion: The Devil’s Playground is a heavy metal title which also distorts Fahey’s original vision. I still love this movie as it is not typical of Australian movies at the time.
Fahey wouldn’t return to making features until the documentary ode to gnome lovers entitled Gnomebrook (2014). He then completed LoveStruck: The Improvised Feature Project (2017). I haven’t seen either. It was a career with momentum which had been interrupted by something in the wake of Cubbyhouse… What happened is that he must have gone back to the drawing board to study law, as Fahey is now a partner in Perkins Fahey lawyers and specialises in business, media, communications and information technology law where he has represented writers, producers, directors as well as multi-national companies. If he wanted a steady pay-check he got it. At least he has a legacy in terms of movies.
So, there we have a quick look at Murray Fahey’s movies, who was, in the beginning, an independent filmmaker who wanted to make a good horror movie while on the other hand wanted to make us wet ourselves with laughter instead of fear. But this split in the focus of the type of movie he produced never diluted his intentions as a writer and director and while his films were not critically acclaimed or remembered on a grand scale worldwide, they are a worthy part of Australian filmmaking history.