In the late 1970s Australia suddenly looked like the new mecca for cinematic art, as movies like My Brilliant Career (1979), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Breaker Morant (1980)achieved unprecedented international critical and commercial success.
Those award-bait films are pointedly mentioned just in passing, for contrast, in Not Quite Hollywood, which is about all the other movies from Down Under during that period those the tourist boards and arts councils preferred you didn’t know about. Subtitled The Wild, Untold Story of OZploitation!, Mark Hartley’s documentary is one of the best appreciations ever made of some of the worst films ever made.
Actually, they’re not all bad, by a long shot, though it’s measure of Not Quite Hollywood‘s infectious spirit that it induces a potent desire to see a number of films that in fact turn out to be pretty excruciating when seen in anything more than five-second increments. Their likes include 1978’s Stunt Rock the predictably lame high-concept combination of stunt performers, magic tricks, and a justifiably forgotten band called Sorcery not to mention extended dirty jokes like 1974’s Australia After Dark, 1981’s Pacific Banana, 1975’s The Love Epidemic, and 1975’s The True Story of Eskimo Nell. (The latter, however, features the following philosophically defining line: "There’s a day comin’ when I’m gonna stick me dick in the heart of the Earth and the bang’ll be heard in Alaska!")
Indeed, it was the belated relaxation of draconian censorship standards that opened the initially very smutty floodgates for Aussie exploitation cinema. While American audiences were enjoying the brief cultural moment known as "porn chic," folks on the other side of the planet were vicariously experiencing the sexual revolution in the softcore form of local snickerfests like 1973’s Alvin Purple ("The Bloke Who Has Everything But Inhibitions!") and 1972’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie ("Cripes! The Things These Porn Sheilas Will Do On Camera!"). As several older, wiser actors note, any thoughts at the time that showing skin was about "liberation" proved delusional.
Much of Not Quite Hollywood is in a similar mood of bemused recall, reflecting that most endearing national Australian characteristic, an allergy to pretension. Confessed Ozploitation fanatic Quentin Tarantino does most of the on-camera cheerleading here, while folks who actually worked on the films in question typically recount how daft, crass, and/or sometimes plain dangerous to work on these enterprises were.
Unlike the Peter Weir and Bruce Bereford movies that presented Australia’s high-cultural face to the world, Aussie genre films of the ’70s and ’80s were often deliberately origin-blurred, the better to appeal to a North American drive-in audience. (When the most famous of them all, 1979’s Mad Max, first got released here its dialogue was actually redubbed by American actors.)
Washed-up or third-tier international "stars" like Jenny Agutter, Steve Railsback, or Broderick Crawford were flown in for marquee value, often greeted with open hostility by local actors whose jobs they’d "stolen." If war stories recounted here are indicative, many got revenge by behaving very badly: Dennis Hopper, for instance, was so berserk on Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan (1976) that police finally escorted him to the airport, practically banning him from an entire continent.
Not everything here is craptastic. Gems ripe for rediscovery include the 1978 Long Weekend in which a horribly combative urban yuppie couple going camping attract ambiguous vengeance from a horribly pissed-off Mother Nature. Another deeply buried treasure is 1982’s Turkey Shoot, a Most Dangerous Game spin that Brian Trenchard-Smith turned into a "high camp splatter movie" when the unfortunate last-minute disappearance of half the planned budget x’d out the script’s more expensive ideas. Its zesty offensiveness still riles critic Philip Adams, a plummy-voiced snob who decries "these vulgar films" that "admitted to the wider world we were yahoos."
But what yahoos. Australian exploitation cinema has had a particular penchant for putting protagonists at the mercy of crazy-car-driving, sheila-ogling, unkempt and un-sane rural inbreds. Sometimes they’re the main peril, sometimes just an unfriendly preliminary to the central menace of giant killer hogs (Razorback, 1984), giant killer crocs (Dark Age, 1987), giant punk prisoner camps (Dead End Drive-In, 1986) or psychotic stalkers driving Mr. Whippy ice cream vans (Snapshot, 1979).
There’s a whatever-works (even when it doesn’t) spirit to these films personified by the career of Trenchard-Smith, whose boldly indiscriminate resume has thus far stretched from several Aussie kung fu movies to 1983’s BMX Bandits (with Nicole Kidman!) to 1997’s Leprechaun 4: In Space. It’s a little annoying when Tarantino brags about dedicating Kill Bill‘s Australian premiere to this prestige-resistant director just to piss off the local "snobs." But it’s gold when the man himself cheerfully admits "I am a guilty pleasure footnote." *
NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION! opens Fri/14 in San Francisco.