The gatekeepers of Australian film financing bodies, baby boomers who were shaggy-haired youth when Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider sparked the American film renaissance of the 60s and 70s, came to view the emergence of blockbusters and middle of the road multiplex movies as something to be wary of. Buoyed by government funding, they crossed the street and took it upon themselves to finance and re-finance “artistic” films with virtually no commercial potential and, often, virtually no sense of art.
There have been many successes along the way but the failures are too many and varied to name. Recently the Australian film industry couldn’t make a sports movie about football; it had to be a coastal-set drama about the emotional aftermath of rape. We couldn’t do a superhero movie; a caped crusader storyline was a disguise for a somber exploration of mental illness, ensuring an otherwise built-in audience would stay away in droves. We couldn’t make a cricket tournament movie; it had to use the pitch as a metaphor for moving from one phase of adult life to the next.
The wreckage reaped by Oz film financiers perpetuated a dichotomy between what “normal” audiences want to watch and where their tax dollars go. This led to a perception that [pullquote position=”right”]if you don’t live in inner city suburbs and aren’t partial to stories about people who collapse in the gutter with needles in their arms, Australian films are not for you[/pullquote]. Somewhere along the line “genre” became a dirty word.
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Interviewees in director Mark Hartley’s terrific Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood (2008) heralded Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek (2005) as a game-changer: an export-ready smash hit horror/thriller that bridged the gap between critics and audiences, aficionados and punters.
By the time its sequel hits our screens next year almost a full decade will have passed, an inordinate wait for what could have been a financial cert, and a solid bet from an artistic perspective. In half that time Hartley has made two other pictures: Machete Maidens Unleashed!, an encyclopedic doco about Filipino genre filmmaking, and now Patrick, a remake of one of several Tarantino-lauded cult films flagged in NQH.
Richard Franklin’s 1978 original is a stodgy but memorable pic about a comatose hospital patient with telekinetic powers and anger management issues. Patrick (now played by Jackson Gallagher) takes a liking to his new nurse, now Nurse Williams (Sharni Vinson) and sets about destroying other men in her life. It’s a Misery-meets-Carrie premise, the central point of orbit a character whose sole physical ability is to spit but can mentally do virtually anything he likes, including controlling other people. This leads to an awkward first date; it’s hard to get to second base after hocking a loogie at your partner’s face.
In Hartley’s film the head doctor of a dilapidated hospital is incarnated with classic diabolical campiness by Charles Dance, clearly in his element when scarfing down live frogs and dourly rolling off lines such as “he (Patrick) is currently 165 pounds of meat hanging off a dead brain.” Rachel Griffiths is a Ratched-like head nurse. This time it’s the maniacal movie around her that’s one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
The story has been modernised: Patrick can now surf through your social media accounts and is played by an actor who wouldn’t look out of place in a Twilight movie. Hartley’s technically and stylistically superior film moves with a flashy kineticism Australian viewers are not used to seeing; their local pictures don’t usually look this good or burn their way through running times this quickly.
During the story’s “slow” burning build (creepy hospital, new nurse, connection with patient, first glimpses of mayhem etc) Hartley’s frames twist, turn, zoom, pan… a swimming motion sustained during even the more simplistic shots. You’d call it style over substance if the style wasn’t so good, and the substance so cryptic but effusive, a witch’s broth of weirdness bubbling away at the film’s core.
It’s the sheer energy of Patrick and the schmick midnight look of it that provide cover when the cast dip into the odd spot of flaky B movie style acting (though the self-assurance of Dance and Griffiths’ performances render them imperturbable) and the story careens into madness.
That madness is ultimately, like the grotty genre films Hartley dug out of piles of dodgy detritus for Not Quite Hollywood, what makes Patrick a great late night horror movie — [pullquote]an awesome vial of mad scientist cinema glossed with the varnish of a gothic looking art film[/pullquote]. Just when you think it can’t bounce, crash, leap and hurl forward any faster, with any more ferocity, with a more measured sense of hysterical purpose, Hartley finds a way to crank the dial to eleven then smash it to pieces.
The last 20 minutes are slap-to-the-face mesmerising, an instant blood stain on the carpet of bat shit crazy Australian filmmaking. This roaringly good high voltage genre film — take note, Oz film financiers, that it ain’t a dirty word — is the work of a director who drank the bong water and gorged on the gunk, emerging from the rubble schooled by the shortcomings of many other lesser works.
Hartley understands all too well that a pulpy midnight horror movie can be many things (Fast! Trashy! Outrageous! Over the top!) but it cannot be boring. It cannot be complacent. And it cannot take the audience for granted.