Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Hell's Gates

Hell's Gates: the treacherously narrow and shallow entrance to Macquarie Harbour on the west coast of Tasmania, named so by the hapless convicts whose fate it was to pass through it. Once through those ominous Gates, the starving and scurvy ridden wretches would disembark at their destination - the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station at Sarah Island. For many of those unfortunates it would, quite literally, be their final destination.

It's also the name I'm giving to this new weekly feature dedicated to Australian horror. Each week I'll endeavour to celebrate a different Aussie horror movie through posters, ephemera and behind the scenes pics etc. In the wake of Mark Hartley's brilliant Ozploitation doc Not Quite Hollywood, there seems to be a renewed international interest in Terror Australis, so I hope some of you degenerates get a kick out of this!

I can't think of a better way to start this than with the most notorious convict ever to pass through Hell's Gates - Alexander Pearce. That's his skull at top. The infamous cannibal convict is probably Australia's most enduring folk horror figure, being the subject of several biographies, documentaries, a couple of pop songs and - of course - horror movies. Some lurid info from Wiki:

Pearce led an escape from Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement and became notorious for cannibalising his fellow escapees as they travelled through the West Coast of Tasmania.

Pearce was eventually captured near Hobart and confessed that he and the others had cannibalised each other over a period of weeks, he being the last survivor. Pearce and Greenhill had been the final two, each struggling to stay awake for days out of fear the other would kill him. Greenhill finally nodded off and Pearce killed him with an axe, then ate him. Pearce made it to the settled districts, being sheltered by a convict shepherd until he was captured several months later. The Hobart magistrate did not believe Pearce's cannibalism story and was convinced the others were still living as bushrangers. Pearce was returned to Sarah Island.

Within a year he escaped a second time, joined by a young convict named Thomas Cox. Pearce was captured within ten days. His captors found parts of Cox's body in Pearce's pockets, even though he still had food left. Pearce confessed that he had killed Cox because he was a hindrance to him. Pearce was taken to Hobart, where he was tried and convicted of murdering and cannibalising Thomas Cox. He was hanged at the Hobart Town Gaol at 9am on 19 July 1824, after receiving the last rites from a priest. It is reported that just before Pearce was hung, he said:

"Man’s flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork."

No mention of chicken then? Strange because I've always found I've heard it tastes more like chicken.

Anyway, in the last couple of years we've seen two Pearce films, and they couldn't be more distinct from each other in style and substance...

First up, Jody Dwyer's 2008 shocker Dying Breed. A flop at the Aussie box office, I personally enjoyed this less than original, but impressive debut. This one shifts the Pearce cannibal tale into a contemporary setting, by making the antagonists not the man himself, but his inbred descendants (the famous man-eater does make an appearance in a brief prologue sequence). You've seen The Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw, so there's nothing really new here, but there's still quite a lot to like about it. Shot on location in Tasmania in trying conditions, it has atmosphere to spare and looks fantastic - all rain, mist, mud and very cold looking forest. It's more than competently made, with good production values, decent turns from the thesps (even the annoying Leigh Whannell of Saw fame) and some tasty gore. I love this poster, which managed to raise the ire of our very own guardians of morality, the OFLC (our version of the MPAA/BBFC).

Released the following year, and existing on a different cinematic plane altogether, is Jonathan auf der Heide's more somber take on the grisly story - Van Diemen's Land. This one plays like Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick's take on the cannibal genre - slow burning, archly shot and obviously filmed on location (again in Tasmania) under unpleasant conditions and considerable duress. The results are astounding, showing off the grandeur of the Tassie forests, but twisting the beauty into a menacing Green Inferno - cold, hostile and utterly unsurvivable. This one won't be to everyone's tastes due to it's slow pace and emphasis on atmosphere over dialogue and action, but for the more patient viewer it's well worth the effort.

Death portrait of Pearce after his execution

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Mighty Monarch Of Exploitation!

A few days late, but I want to acknowledge the passing of notorious sleaze producer David F. Friedman, partner in crime to the similarly infamous Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Starting in 1961 the two worked together frequently, first on Lewis' early nudie-cuties (The Adventures Of Lucky Pierre, Daughter Of The Sun, Nature's Playmates, Boin-n-g), and then on the seminal Grand Guignol trashfests Blood Feast, Color Me Blood Red and Two Thousand Maniacs! (the latter being a personal fave of yours truly).

The blood-letting in these flicks may be tame by today's standards, but it has to be viewed in the context of the era in which they were created. We're talking about splatter movies that were made almost 50 years ago! To give it some historical perspective: Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris closed it's doors for the final time in 1962... mere months before Blood Feast was unleashed on the world in '63.

With that in mind, I don't think it's hyperbole to say that Feast could be considered the symbolic heir to the anarchic, underground spirit embodied by that famous theatre. A harbinger of less morally constrained times to come... when a voyeuristic fascination with the darker and more carnal side of life would become a deep-rooted and permanent fixture of the mainstream psyche.

About a decade later my fondest and most rewatched Friedman-produced sickie was puked out, whereupon it immediately commenced goose stepping it's sexy jack boots all over the fresh graves of Good Taste and Decency. That film was of course Don Edmonds' delirious Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS, and it remains my favourite Nazisploitation flick to this day. Speaking of which, can any of my uber-knowledgeable readers comment on the origin of that Ilsa artwork at the top of this post?

Today, the legendary HGL posted a few warm words of his own about his old friend at Fangoria. It's well worth the read, here's an excerpt:

"On the set, Dave sometimes took a “What am I doing here?” role, but we all knew better. Once, the neighbors of a home in whose yard we were filming one of our goofy FX called the cops. A determined-looking policeman arrived, ready to growl and fuss. Within five minutes, Dave had the cop playing a role in the film."

"The rushes are late? Dave makes a phone call and they’re here by taxi. My ancient Mitchell camera isn't grinding? Dave knows somebody who will drop whatever he’s doing and come over to fix it. They want to kick us out of a location? No problem, just let Dave talk to them."

Check out the rest of Lewis' obit at Fango HERE.

Well, so long Dave, and thanks for all the mammaries!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Black Death & The Current State Of UK Horror

English auteur-in-the-making Christopher Smith failed to make an impression on me with his slasher debut Creep. Fortunately, his output since then has gone from strength to strength, revealing a versatile director with a broad and original vision. On his first four movies, I'm impressed with the ease at which he's stayed within the horror genre but moved so effortlessly between sub-genres. From Creep, to Severance and Triangle, each successive film has marked what feels like an almost exponential growth in maturity and intelligence.

The culmination of Smith's work so far is his slow-burning, bleakly apocalyptic medieval fantasy Black Death, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Behold these two recent posters for it by Simon Bisley, who did a similar one for Neil Marshall's Centurion last year. I like that these artworks create a connection between the two films, because, to my mind, they're tonally quite similar. In fact I think there's a kind of parallel synchronicity to Smith's and Marshall's careers so far, the two becoming more confident and skilled in tandem. It's definitely not a stretch to say that these two fellows - along with Simon Rumley - are leading the charge of the NWOBH invasion.

Speaking of which, UK horror has been in consistently fine form for the last few years. I'm frequently blown away by new British movies, seemingly popping up out of nowhere. For example, has anyone seen Outcast, directed by one Colm McCarthy? I saw it the other night and, despite a rather rote feeling conclusion, it's brilliant! One of the coolest occult horror flicks I've ever seen, and bound for kvlt status I'm sure. In terms of pagan, witchy mysticism, it may well overshadow Robin Hardy's upcoming Wicker Man sequel, The Wicker Tree, which - if the trailer is any indication - is looking worryingly hokie (please prove me wrong Mr. Hardy).