Thursday 9 February 2012

Night of Fear (1972)

Director: Terry Bourke
Stars: Norman Yemm, Carla Hoogeveen, Briony Behets and Mike Dorsey

I'd always heard that the reason The Texas Chain Saw Massacre didn't have any blood in it was because Tobe Hooper was trying for a PG certificate. Of course it didn't get one, instead being so horrifying to censors that it was banned outright in many countries. What I hadn't realised until now is that the most obvious inspiration for such a classic terror film had a similar history. Night of Fear was the pilot episode for an Australian TV series called Fright, which itself was promptly banned by horrified censors. It features a young lady who finds herself outside her comfort zone in rural Australia terrorised by a backwoods psychopath. No, there's no chainsaw but otherwise it has many similarities to Hooper's film, merely made two years earlier in similarly grainy 35mm. I wonder if Hooper saw it and thought that taking the blood out would avoid the controversy that the film had encountered.

It opens innocently enough, with a young lady riding a horse out in the countryside. She ties it to a tree and sits down in the woods. The aura is of rural bliss. Then the sinister music kicks in and we see a man sharpening an evil looking axe. Cue the chase scene, which of course she loses in time for the Fright title sequence to run and set us up for the film proper. There are two reasons why this is such a fascinating piece of cinema. One is that it's utterly anonymous, the characters without either names or voices. The credits list them as simply Horse Girl and The Man, and they play this out without words. The other is that there's no fannying around whatsoever as this film gets frantically down to business. She chases her horse to a farm, where the first thing she sees is a gravestone. As she hears her horse whinny, she unknowingly slips away from the clutching hand behind her. One minute of bliss, six of terror: it's the textbook horror short.

After the credits, we watch the same thing expanded to three quarters of an hour with different characters and more depth. This time the unnamed young lady is The Woman, in the delightful form of Carla Hoogeveen, who starts out in the shower and spends most of the film in a notably short skirt. She might be cute, but she's not shown with much sympathy. The establishing story has her escape her husband to get a good workout with The Lover at the Silvercrest Tennis Club, both on and off the court. She's a terrible driver too, which is why she ends up forced down a dead end side road from a blind curve to end up in The Man's world. As such we're already set up nicely to see her get hers, and frrom here the plot, such as it is, progresses precisely as you might expect, with every genre convention catered to. Everything you think you'll find from a backwoods terror movie is here, though it may have originated many of those conventions.

Two things struck me immediately and continued to do so throughout. One is that it's a notably experimental piece, most obvious in its jarring music and lack of dialogue, but also apparent in its camerawork and editing. The camera is very personal and often plays a voyeuristic role. One scene in particular alternates between shots of the leering and gibbering maniac and his torn victim with the camera looking at her sprawling form from between his legs. Occasional shaky scenes work well, mostly because they're not continual, just used in particularly tense scenes. The editing is frequently done with the aim of alternating between the routine and the freaky. There are also many very fast cuts, not truly subliminal but obviously with that aim in mind. A number of these glimpses are of unrecognisable chunks of hanging meat, presumably cut from Horse Girl's horse. We don't need to see exactly what they are to get the intended effect.

The other was just how far this picture went in embracing the excesses of the seventies, to a much greater degree than I would ever have expected on television in 1972. It was shot by a production company called Terryrod, named for writer/director Terry Bourke and producer Rod Hay, as the pilot for a horror themed TV show, with broadcast rights given to ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in return for use of crew and production facilities. It isn't surprising in the slightest that the ABC execs were so shocked by what they saw that they promptly cancelled the entire series. I'd love to know what else Bourke had up his sleeve for the other eleven parts as this is purest exploitiation cinema condensed to two thirds of the normal theatrical running time with an experimental edge that makes it even more fascinating. His subsequent career has been varied, with 1975's weird western Inn of the Damned being the obvious companion piece.
Norman Yemm is a suitably freaky backwoods hillbilly nutjob. He never speaks, merely moans as if he's inbred and retarded but otherwise appears completely in control. He doesn't wear a mask made out of human skin, so he looks less like Leatherface and more like a hillbilly version of Kris Kristofferson, but the tone is all Leatherface, merely with a shovel not a chainsaw. Oh, and rats, lots of rats. When he first glimpses The Woman, while walking towards her crashed car, there's one on his shoulder. The whole time he pursues her through the Kuringai Chase National Park, it's stuffed down his dungarees. There are many more back at the farm, live ones on the mantel and stuffed ones in glass cases. He also has cats in cages, butterflies in a shadow box and clippings of the female anatomy in picture frames. The farm is all backwoods crafty, though not in great shape. I got a particular kick out of the madonna and child machete stand.

Sure, having newspaper clippings about rape and murder pinned to the wall is sinister and the bloody lumps of flesh he feeds his cats are suitably exploitative, but the real freakiness is in the sexual side of things. I remember the British censors getting upset about of lot of things in film, but the one that was guaranteed to have them snipping away was any overt link between sex and violence, especially with a female victim. Maybe Australia was more open about this sort of thing than the UK but I'm utterly unsurprised that both ABC and the Australian Censor Board got their knickers in a twist over what unfolds here. The masturbation scene is as overt a link between sex and violence as I've ever seen, even though we don't actually see any masturbation. The most outrageous visual image has The Man walk up to a bound naked girl with her legs apart, naked himself and holding a bloody skull between his legs. And it got banned... what a surprise.

Carla Hoogeveen is not the greatest actress in the world, but she's admirably willing to get more and more haggard as the film runs on. She's a pretty girl but she gets more damaged and more frazzled with time. She does pretty well, especially given that she has no dialogue and the sound effects weren't added in until afterwards. Given the open framing of the film, there's very little to bounce off or react to. She screams less than she flounders and cries but there are screams too and a decent percentage of the scenes revolve around nothing but her being terrorised. Her best moments are when her wits are apparently leaving her, though her falling asleep scene is rather over the top. Her fainting scene, on the other hand, is a peach. Yemm doesn't actually do much but he's great. For the most part he just has to be there on the other side of the window with his chirrupping rat on his shoulder. The Frankenstein's Monster foot can't hurt either.

Night of Fear certainly isn't without flaws. It's only fifty minutes long for a start and there's too much setup. We really don't care about the moving van that causes The Woman to be run off the road, for instance. Not all the experimentation works but it's groundbreaking nonetheless and it was very timely. There's a capably shot transition in the film, that takes The Woman from the city/civilisation/carefree illicit country club sex to the backwoods/middle of nowhere/scary place as the sun goes down. The light to dark parallel was no doubt deliberate, but it turned out to be mirrored in real life, as this may be the first home grown horror movie to see a theatrical release in Australia, after being rejected from the small screen, and thus spurring the horror side of the Ozploitation boom, which began a year earlier with the introduction of the R rating and the birth of the Australian New Wave. Only the 1971 Donald Pleasence film Wake in Fright might predate it.

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