At some point long ago, film studios became acutely aware that taking an unremarkable animal or insect, then radically increasing its size, was a sure-fire recipe for commercial success. I suppose it makes sense to suggest that this trend began with the release of that most iconic of monster movies, King Kong, in 1933. Others might propose that the phenomenon gained its real momentum during the early Cold War days, as low-budget exploitation films did their best to tap into a culture of nuclear paranoia with films like Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955). Either way, giant animals have been a mainstay of both horror and science fiction cinema ever since. But here in Australia, there’s only one giant animal movie worth mentioning… Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback (1984).
The premise of Razorback is fairly simple. A Canadian reporter (Judy Morris) heads to Australia to investigate claims that the kangaroo is becoming extinct (an odd premise given that the current kangaroo population is somewhere between 50 and 60 million), where her enquiries lead to a rather brutal end at the hands of a giant razorback pig in the middle of the outback. Ironically, the arrival of the pig saves her from a more dehumanising death at the hands of two psychotic locals. The body is never found, and her husband (Gregory Harrison) soon arrives to investigate the disappearance. He enlists the help of Jake Cullen (the recently deceased Bill Kerr) who has also lost a family member to the giant boar, as well as unknowingly hiring the two aforementioned psychotic locals to assist in the hunt. What ensues is a fairly traditional tale of man versus beast, although the amoral violence of the locals is far more disturbing than the brutality of the giant boar.
Razorback is perhaps one of the more well-renowned and better made ozploitation films, the name given to a genre comprised of low-budget exploitation movies that came out of Australia in the 70s and 80s. And it may interest some to note that, like in Razorback, the use of a Canadian or American central character was very common in these films (a technique borrowed from the Italian giallo films), as it opened up a broader export market. Also quite common to these films was the portrayal of Australians as psychotic hooligans, prone to extreme violence and outrageous bouts of alcoholism – a trait that tended to engender greater overseas box office results. This made the creators of these films uneasy bedfellows with the rest of the Australian film industry, where ozploitation cinema was generally seen as an obstacle in producing a national cinema worthy of international recognition. But back to the film!
Prior to directing Razorback, Mulcahy was already an acclaimed director of music videos, and had worked with the likes of Elton John, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Duran Duran, and Fleetwood Mac amongst others. This is fairly obvious when watching Razorback, a film comprised of seemingly endless highly stylised shots, haphazardly assembled into the vague ghost of a narrative film. At times, Mulcahy is so focused on the visual elements of his movie that his characters and their dialogue are treated as incidental or irrelevant… a reality reflected in the generally poor audio recording throughout the film. In fact, there are one or two scenes I’ve watched a handful of times in a row without fully understanding the dialogue – and I’ve always felt a little disappointed in the lack of attention Mulcahy gives to Everett De Roche’s script – a writer who generated a kind of Hitchockian respectability into several genre films of the period. But conversely, there is something about the bizarre disconnect between the stunning visual imagery of the film (hats off to cinematographer Dean Semler) and the dialogue that lend it a fascinating dreamlike oddness that reminds me of the underappreciated Dune released in the same year. It’s worth noting that after the completion of Razorback, Mulcahy would go onto direct a range of successful, if similarly flawed films like Highlander (1986), Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), and Resident Evil: Extinction (2007).
But then again, all this is kind of irrelevant. Razorback is about pretty images, psychotic yobbos and most importantly, a giant pig. It certainly delivers on the first two fronts, but how about the third? The good news is that Mulcahy demonstrates an impressive amount of restraint when it comes to the unveiling of his giant beast, and in most of the encounters that unlucky folk have with the pig throughout the film the suspense levels are generally kept at a high – the brief glimpses of hairy boar are more than persuasive enough to do the job. A full reveal in the final scenes contains one or two shots that probably could have done with a bit of a ‘less-is-more’ trim, but all in all the pig outclasses the shark in Jaws when it comes to the the big reveal.
Despite its flaws (or perhaps because of them), Razorback has rightly earned its place amongst the greatest giant-animal movies of all time, and is most certainly a notable Australian entry into one of the great years for cinema, 1984. If you like the idea of a visually stunning movie about a giant killer pig… this one’s for you!