Sunday, October 23, 2016

Halloween Havoc: OUT OF THE BODY (1988)

So great was the impact of THE EXORCIST (1973) on global consciousness that it has been an inspiration to a huge number of films over the decades since it was released. Whether these post-EXORCIST film are blunt-force "rip-offs" (such as 1974s SEYTAN) or just something that wouldn't have played out the way it did without THE EXORCIST's existence, there are plenty of interesting outings that followed in its wake.

Our cousins from Down Under have never been much for straight up horror movies, aside from the past decade in which they have turned out a lot of American style gore flicks. They may sell well, but it is a true waste of Aussie talent. They have, however, always had an excellent handle on suspense and thrillers with horror undertones. Films such as the gripping LADY STAY DEAD (1981) and the strange 1987 film CASSANDRA, are thrillers working on jangling your nerves, but also adopting American slasher themes and sometimes Italian giallo motifs as well.

The EXORCIST influence was felt strongly in 1978 with Richard Franklin's PATRICK (1978). The first theatrical project written by the late, masterful ex-pat screenwriter Everett De Roche. De Roche who went on to write Aussie classics such as THE LONG WEEKEND (1978) and ROAD GAMES (1981), created a thriller with horror overtones about a comatose young man in a private hospital who seems to be able to channel his inner rage into the confines of the hospital, executing those who irritate him. The elements of a bed ridden individual with supernatural power used for evil, are not ripped off from THE EXORCIST, but are definitely influenced by it. PATRICK saw global popularity due to the universal appeal of the subject matter. It doesn't matter if you are Catholic, Muslim, Agnostic or Atheist, the subject of a seemingly vulnerable individual channeling evil power crosses any social, political or religious boundaries. Just like how even Jewish people can enjoy DRACULA. Sure, the villainous bloodsucker can't be warded off with a Star of David, but it doesn't really matter, it's intrinsically about the triumph of good over evil.

In 1989 Brian Trenchard-Smith released one of his few horror movies, OUT OF THE BODY, that felt the ripple of the EXORCISTs mighty splash. Essentially it is a thriller, but it is as much of a horror film as you are going to get out of pre-'90s Aussie cinema.

Late at night a successful businesswoman is suddenly snatched into the air, has her eyes ripped out and is hung up on a fire escape after trying to get in her car. When a policeman and his K9 companion investigate the blaring car alarm, his dog suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. Apparently this is yet another grisly murder in a string of inexplicable killings. At the same time, a college professor and struggling musician, David Gaze (Mark Hembrow) finds that his vivid and twisted nightmares are actually visions of the murders being committed. So disturbed is he by this, he tries to contact people who he thinks are going to be victims who naturally write him off as missing a few shrimp on his barbie.

Of course the police find his claims not only crazy, but seemingly an incitement of the his own guilt. Fortunately for him he has the world's most understanding girlfriend, Neva St. Clair (Tessa Humphries, daughter of Barry McKenzie creator, Barry Humphries), who reckons that astral projection is a complete reasonable explanation and is not in the least bit creeped out by the fact that the man she's sleeping with knows more about the murders than the police do. Clearly I need to move to Australia. I can't find a girl that will put up with my taste in movies, much less a possible involvement in a murder investigation.

While David is having his presumed mental break, noted feminist author, and implied angry lesbian, Stephanie Parker (Sally Hudson), is interviewing a series of successful female business women for her next book. Her favorite topic is how much men suck at, well, everything, but her bedroom eyes aren't being taken seriously by her interviewees who either are completely blind or just don't care. One by one, each of these women are successively attacked by a malevolent force that tears out their eyes. Could she be the killer? Magic eight ball says: No spoilers dammit!

Written by playwright and TV series writer Kenneth G. Ross, who wrote the original play that the 1980 film BREAKER MORANT was based on, this was his one and only feature film production. How's that for a resume? The script is enigmatic, even by Australian standards, but Trenchard-Smith's camera set-ups and lighting are stylishly executed making even a few simple conversation scenes interesting. Synth composer Peter Westheimer's minimalist score adds a lot to the giallo-esque flavor.

To be fair not all of the EXORCIST influences are well conceived. We have shots of the obligatory demon fetishes, a possession scene at the end of the film, but there are also a couple of scenes of furniture flying around on wires that feels like we've taken a way-back ride to a William Castle film. Not that it's a bad thing in a Castle movie, it just undercuts the horror in an otherwise solid modern film (yes, I just called the '80s "modern").

While the gore isn't as explicit as some might expect from the man who brought us TURKEY SHOOT (1982) and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 (1994), there are enough nasty moments to park it firmly on the horror shelf. At times Trenchard-Smith evokes an almost Italian approach, with moody lighting and the stylish attack sequences which are shown from the killer's point of view. The fact that it has adult characters (David is divorced from his first wife who happens to be his boss) is also a plus. If it were made today, it would be teenagers in a school, not adults running a school. It is far more effective to see people in positions of responsibility become suspects of a string of brutal crimes rather than some zit-popping slacker. And no, I've never yelled at anyone to get off my lawn. The fact that I don't have one makes no difference.

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