I’ve long been a fan of Australian exploitation or “ozploitation” cinema, so I’m always excited when this under-appreciated segment of Aussie film history gets a little recognition. The idea that new audiences might be exposed to our long history of low-budget horror classics, genre mash-ups, comedies, sex romps and so-bad-its-goodies gives me a vicarious thrill that I can’t quite explain. Which is why I’m particularly excited about the two week season of ozploitation films about to start screening on SBS World Movies across Australia from Monday 4th July.
This is the second such season run by World Movies, and like the first this season will be hosted by renowned film and television critic, Andrew Mercado (AKA The Unknown Stuntman). I spent some time with The Unknown Stuntman talking about the great films he’ll be introducing this year, and the importance of ozploitation in Australian film culture.
For those not in the know, what is Australian exploitation or “ozploitation” cinema?
The Australian film industry basically didn’t exist in the 1950s and the 1960s, and when the 70s came around, the government actually thought, “Let’s see if we can kick start this.” The first films that took off were what we would consider exploitation titles. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple were both comedies and I guess sex-comedies in a way. Both those films were hugely and phenomenally popular. Barry McKenzie was completely funded by the government Film Finance Corporation of the day. It was a big success, the first comedy film to ever crack a million dollars at the box office. All that money went back into the till to then fund other filmmaking to come along.
I think what then happened is as the breadth of local films began to increase, it was movies like Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career that went overseas and really captured critics’ attention. When we became the darlings of the new world cinema, people started brushing those earlier, cruder attempts under the carpet. But the fact is that they were vital. They were very visceral, and without those early sex-comedies, we probably would never have gotten a modern Australian film industry again.
The Aussie Exploitation film series you’re hosting next week isn’t the first of these. You first partnered with the World Movies team on a similar line-up in 2014. How did you come to work on this project?
It was a chance encounter a few years back at a secret cinema screening that World Movies was putting on, and their staff were there. They’re the only station in Australia that can legally show R-rated films on TV, which offers an opportunity to showcase some movies that you couldn’t normally screen. My mind always goes back to the great Australian classic exploitation films of the 70s and 80s, and I said, “You should do a fest all around that.” To their credit, they said, “What a great idea. Let’s do it.” And they did do it, and it turned out to be the highest rated event in their channel history.
There are a lot of ozploitation films out there, so choosing a list of ten is a pretty difficult task. How did you come to choose these ten films? (Razorback, The Man from Hong Kong, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Long Weekend, Alvin Purple, Inn of the Damned, The ABC of Love and Sex, Les Patterson Saves the World, Felicity and Alvin Purple Rides Again)
We try and hit every genre in there that we can, so there’s a lot of great horror films. We include Long Weekend and Razorback. Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple are there because they were just so damn successful. Then we put a couple of the sexy films in there like Felicity and The ABC of Love and Sex. And of course The Man from Hong Kong, the only Australian kung fu movie ever made. It gets a special place.
I was glad you chose that one. It was good to see that director Brian Trenchard-Smith made the cut.
Brian Trenchard-Smith has made some fantastic Australian films, but The Man from Hong Kong is just one of the craziest in terms of stunt-work. Back in the 70s everyone was doing these really outrageous stunts out on public highways and all sorts of crazy stuff. They were doing it all without permits… it was really, really dangerous. It was just such an exciting time back then that people were willing to do anything because – to finally be making films down here in Australia – people were just prepared to do anything to make the films amazing.
Do you have any particular favourites from this line up of films? If you had to recommend just three?
First off, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie because I always think it’s really important that every new generation see that it’s there. One of the great things about that movie is that Barry Humphries resurrected a lot of classic Aussie slang expressions. He also invented a whole bunch of new ones as well. I think now we get swamped by Americana. It’s always good to remember that you can drop the most hilarious Australian slang expressions back into conversation today and get a laugh, and you’ll get a mountain of them by watching Barry McKenzie.
I’m also a huge fan of the original Alvin Purple movie. It still stands up really well, and they made that movie for 200 thousand dollars. It grossed five million dollars at the box office back then, and if you adjust that for inflation, that’s about 37 million in today’s money. We never hear of Australian films making that much money at the box office. Now those sorts of figures are reserved only for the Marvel comic blockbusters and things like that. It gives you an idea of what a game changer that was, and the fact that it played in cinemas for over a year back before we had the multiplexes and all that type of thing.
I guess the third film that I’d put in there is probably The Man from Hong Kong except we’ve just talked about that. I’ll give a bit of a kick along to Razorback because it was directed by Russell Mulcahy, who had been directing 80s music videos for Duran Duran and Elton John. At the time people looked at this film and thought that some of its techniques were a bit weird and out there, but when you watch the film now, you see what a trailblazer he was.
In some ways I’m surprised that it hasn’t become as culturally resonant as something like Mad Max.
I think the filmmakers are really honest about the fact that they ran out of money towards the end and didn’t quite get the peak right. It wasn’t quite scary enough, but I certainly think in terms of filmmaking, camera angles, and special effects… I agree with you. It should be a much, much bigger cult film than it is.
You were talking about Alvin Purple. I’m interested in the fact that you’ve gone with two Alvin Purple films. I guess that just further emphasises how relevant this character was for Australians?
They rushed the second film out. The first film was just such an enormous hit. They knew they had to do a sequel, and the second film isn’t as good because it goes off into this really stupid plot in which Alvin Purple impersonates a dead gangster that looks just like him. But up until the film takes that diversion and goes off into crazy gangster storyline, the first half is basically about women who have this magnetic attraction to him and are trying to get him to go to bed. Alvin’s just too exhausted all the time. He’s just like, “Give me a break. I can’t take all this attention.” Some of the things in Alvin Rides Again in the first half I thought were terrifically funny and hold up well. It definitely deserves to be on that list despite the second half.
I’m not sure if I should admit to this, but one of my favourite Australian films ever is Les Patterson Saves the World. I understand this film was basically considered an atrocity when it was first released?
The rumour is that Paul Keating stormed out of the world premiere of Les Patterson Saves the World and said, “I’ll make sure that government money never goes into another film like that again.” It was a colossal failure, and Barry Humphries has never really had a failure of that magnitude before or since. There were a whole bunch of things that conspired to work against that film, not the least of which was that in the time between when he had written the script and the time that it hit the screen the idea of a disease with a four letter word wasn’t real funny given that the AIDS crisis was unfolding. People mistakenly thought that Barry Humphries was trying to make light of that crisis which wasn’t the case. It was just one of those awful coincidences.
I still think Les Patterson Saves the World is a film worth watching again… partly because of the strange fact that the whole thing was shot in Sydney. That entire recreation of a Middle Eastern country was all done in a Sydney studio and on the sand hills of Cronulla. Then you get those nutty cameos in there… even Joan Rivers playing the president of the United States. Some of the casting is just so crazy. The film is a failure, and some of the gags in it don’t work as well as they should have, but I would still rather watch a film with Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage than most serious Australian arthouse films. I’d still rather watch something as silly and crude as that than something that was so serious that it disappeared up its own arse!
Speaking of serious, the straightest film in this line-up is probably Long Weekend, a relatively subtle horror-thriller. I know Tarantino is a huge fan. Can you tell us a bit more about Long Weekend?
Long Weekend is a film that is never as scary to Australians as it is to people outside of the country. For us the idea of going off on a drunken holiday and yobbos shooting up animals and the beach and all of that stuff, that’s kind of our culture. Long Weekend is basically about the environment and the animals in the bush turning on this couple because they’re just there being complete yobbos.
What you need to do when you’re watching Long Weekend is sit there with the lights turned down low and imagine it from an overseas perspective. If you’re an Aussie and you’re sitting there on holiday and a possum runs through your tent, that wouldn’t be considered scary at all. But it sure as shit scares Europeans and Americans!
In my mind it makes for a good pairing with Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright.
Wake in Fright for me is the single most horrifying movie I have ever seen about Australia. I saw it on TV when I was a child by myself sitting up one night. I was disturbed by it. Then when they restored the print 30 years later, and I went back to see it again I discovered this whole other level of stuff that was going on that I hadn’t picked up when I was a kid. I think it’s the most disturbing film ever made about Australia. It was made just before Barry McKenzie by an overseas director, and it was his view on Australia at the time. Australians were really horrified by it and didn’t want to know about it. They’re much happier to admit that, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s be funny and we’re a bit vulgar” and all that Barry McKenzie stuff. They weren’t quite ready at the time to admit that we were as rough as the nightmarish scenario you see in Wake in Fright. I still think Wake in Fright is the greatest Australian film ever made.
I’d probably agree with that. I think one of the very first articles I ever wrote for CURNBLOG was a plea for people to watch Wake in Fright. And speaking of films that aren’t part of this Australian exploitation line-up… are there any other movies that you wish you could have squeezed in?
I’ve got a wish list for Aussie Exploitation Three. If we toured next year, I’d love to complete that Barry Humphries trilogy and get Barry McKenzie Holds His Own in there… Australia’s first and probably last vampire comedy.
I’d also like to see the TV series’ Number 96 and The Box. Both of them released big-screen, cinema versions. They were part of the Aussie exploitation thing because not only were we watching this crazy stuff at the cinemas and the drive-ins, but every night we were going home and putting on these incredibly sexy TV shows as well. I’d love to see those two shows included.
The other gem that’s out there you can only see if you buy the High Rolling DVD from Umbrella Entertainment. Brian Trenchard Smith’s first film is a special feature on that DVD called The Love Epidemic. It’s a quasi-serious look at venereal disease. It is so outrageous. That is another one that I’ll be arguing very heavily that we need to feature in the next series of Aussie Exploitation.